Sideways

For reasons that I couldn’t quite put together at first, Sideways (IMDB) reminded me of About Schmidt, the Jack Nicholson RV movie. I’d forgotten, until I got home and read David Edelstein’s review, that both films were made by Alexander Payne (who also made the films Election and Citizen Ruth). Both Schmidt and Sideways are somewhat atypical “road movies,” and both films also focus on charaters who struggle with disappointment about the direction their lives have taken (see Manohla Dargis’s New York Times review). But, as Edelstein points out, Sideways lacks the smugness of Payne’s earlier films, treating the main characters, Miles (Paul Giamatti, who should find some shelf space for the acting awards he will inevitably receive) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), with sympathy, even when we laugh at the situations in which they find themselves.

Miles is a wannbe novelist whose latest book is in the process of being rejected by every publisher out there. He’s also divorced from his wife and living in a small apartment while teaching middle school English classes. Jack is a washed-up actor who is getting married in less than a week. Miles is treating Jack, his college roommate, to one last week of excitement before the wedding. They travel from LA to wine country in northern California, mostly because Miles is an oenophile, though his love for wines seems to be a cover for his alcoholism, though te film elegantly avoids judging his addiction. Jack leaves for the week’s vacation seeking a final fling (or two), and we get the feeling that his sexual adventures are also a kind of addiction.

Once they reach wine country, Miles and Jack meet two women, a waitress Miles knows, Maya (Virginia Madsen), and a wine pourer, Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Jack and Stephanie quickly hook up while Miles and Maya begin to develop a much more cautious relationship. As Miles begins to open up to Maya, he describes his love of pinot noir wines, and it’s clear that when he describes the wine that he identifies with it, perhaps to an unhealthy extreme. Meanwhile, Jack keeps his planned marriage a secret from Stephanie, telling her that he loves her and acting like a father figure towards her child. The film treats these complications carefully (and at times humorously), avoiding simply judging their actions. In this regard, Haden Church does a great job of portraying the smarmy, but essentially disappointed, actor without making Jack seem like a cliche.

I don’t want to say too much more about the film, other than to encourage others to see it (and hopefully get their comments on the film). I was a little disappointed in the film’s treatment of the female characters. Maya is a fairly well-rounded character, but she’s so attractive, it’s a little difficult to determine why she’d become involved with someone like Miles. More disappointing was that Stephanie virtually dsiappears from the film once she learns that Jack is getting married. Her character intrigued me, and I felt her story got lost at the expense of Jack and Miles. It’s not that I wanted resolution to her story (her final segment is a fairly apt critique of Jack’s behavior), I wanted to know more about her character, what motivated her, or whatever. Part of that was Sandra Oh’s performance (she’s also great in the underrated Last Night), but like Maya’s character, Stephanie sometimes seemed more like a plot device to allow the male characters to have their middle-age existential crises. Having more of their stories would have made Sideways, already very satisfying, a much fuller film, but like Dargis, the film reminded me of the “smaller” films of the 1970s before the fall into “the spell of the blockbuster imperative.”

Update I missed Chris’s review last night, but I’d agree with him that the split-screens and slow pans without payoff were a bit annoying, and, yes, the film’s jokes at the expense of the minor characters (especially the overweight waitress) weren’t deserved. And for one of the few negative reviews of the film, check out Charles (Chuck?) Taylor’s Salon review.

8 Comments »

  1. Chris Said,

    November 27, 2004 @ 9:00 am

    I second you on the paltry development of the female characters. It was so shameful that it really made me wish that the narrative would take a disjunctive turn and drop Miles and Jack half-way through to start following Stephanie’s life story.

    And just a piddling character motivation point: if you were a reasonably worldly woman (had a child already, say) wouldn’t you be at least a little suspicious of a flirtatious, womanizing aging actor from out of town? Especially when he starts telling you after a day that he wants to move for you.

  2. chuck Said,

    November 27, 2004 @ 9:18 am

    Yes, it was a big problem. Not sure if I would have noticed, though, if not for Sandra Oh’s more subtle performance. The depth of her involvement with Jack did seem to shift depending on plot needs.

  3. Scrivener Said,

    December 1, 2004 @ 9:58 am

    I enjoyed the movie a lot, got a post that gets around to discussing it here–which also points out that under the circumstances I saw it, though, I might have enjoyed anything.

    In any case, I didn’t really think it was so much the buddy film. And in a weird way the fact that you wanted the film to veer off into the girls’ world is itself a statement that they weren’t as undeveloped or unimportant as Chris thinks they are, no? I mean, I basically agree with you guys, especially the treatment of the overweight waitress, but those factors didn’t so much detract from my interest in Miles’ story. Stephanie and Maya and Jack are not so much two-dimensional as simply not explored other than in how they show us Miles.

    I have a hard time writing about movies I’ve only seen once if I don’t have a screenplay to read, and I’m thinking fuzzy this week, but I really liked Miles’ story.

  4. chuck Said,

    December 1, 2004 @ 10:11 am

    I think I was in a contrarian mood when I wrote this review. Every review I read (other than Salon’s Charles Taylor) was completely positive, and I wanted to try a different take. You’re right to note that the female characters aren’t as flat as I’m implying here, but my suspicion is that Sideways could have done so much more with them.

    By the way, I also often find it difficult to write film reviews after seeing the film only once, unless I write the review almost immediately after watching the film.

  5. chuck Said,

    December 1, 2004 @ 10:28 am

    By the way, I couldn’t leave this comment at Scrivenings (Blogger was rejecting my username for some reason), so I’ll just mention it here: I don’t know that I read Miles’ drinking the cherished bottle of wine as “enjoyment.” If I remember, there was ice in the bottom of the styrofoam cup, and he was certainly in a greasy spoon restaurant, not in a place where I would imagine him enjoying the wine.

    But Scivener’s comments that he identifies with Miles are certainly important to my reading of the film, though, again, I’m not quite sure how to turn that observation into something more meaningful just yet. I like Giamatti quite a bit, and it’s clear that he understands academics and intellectual characters (in fact his father was the English professor and former commissioner of baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti).

  6. Scrivener Said,

    December 1, 2004 @ 2:43 pm

    Oh, I thought drinking the wine in the greasy spoon was definitely about enjoyment. He’s responding to that conversation with Maya: he says he’s got this nice old bottle of wine, and she asks why he’s saving it given that it’s at its peak now, and he responds that he’s waiting for a special occasion or the right person, and she says something very close to “opening the bottle is the special occasion.” Then he finds out his ex is pregnant by her new hubbie–information that he’d usually respond to by downing a bottle or two of whatever wine he could get his hands on–but in this case he runs home and opens the nice bottle and sips it out of a styrofoam cup at a greasy spoon. It’s a special occasion simply because he’s drinking the wine, enjoying it for itself without worrying about the occasion or the company, and without drinking to be drunk. As I read the tone of that scene, it was nopthing like his reaction to his book rejection or even like his reaction to Maya not being at work earlier, when he drinks himself into oblivion and stumbles home. He finally gets what Maya was talkign about, and instead of hoarding this fine wine beyond its peak, he uncorks it and blissfully enjoys it, despite the lack of ideal conditions.

  7. Scrivener Said,

    December 1, 2004 @ 2:49 pm

    I think my identification with Miles is more about class than it is about being an academic. I don’t know exactly how to say this, but by some miraculous series of circumstances my life has turned out really beautifully (thus far…knock wood) but there’s this part of my psyche that is aware that I could have so easily been the kind of loser that Miles is, or like a character in a Bukowski novel. And my successes have allowed me to become an optimistic, happy adult, but I see within myself the possibility of the curmudgeonly cynic. I still identify with lower class, blocked, oppressed, hopeful-but-cynical characters even though that’s not actually the person I became, I think because I am so aware that it could have been. Does that make much sense?

  8. chuck Said,

    December 1, 2004 @ 3:50 pm

    I’d have to think about why I read that scene as being about lack of enjoyment. I think that I may have keyed too heavily on the idea that he would need to share it, the fact that he left the reception of Jack’s wedding so abruptly, but your reading makes a lot of sense. You’re right that it has a different tone than previous “drunk” scenes, but for some reason I read the scene as a form of self-rejection, consuming the wine in perhaps the least ideal conditions possible.

    I certainly understand the class identification, in part due to my family’s financial struggles starting when I was a teenager (and some real struggles I had while writing my dissertation).

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