Monday, February 2, 2009


Dir. Alexander Payne

As far as I can tell, California seems to be a very unforgiving place for the socially inept. Between Silicon Valley, Hollywood and the acres of vineyards its about as nouveau riche as you can get without leaving the country. Los Angeles may be kind of trashy but so is New York and that hasn't kept the country from idolizing it. L.A. also has connotations of warmth and glamor, where New York conjures images of arty socialites huddling together beneath Greenwich Village brownstones and bare trees, with matching striped scarves. In film it is the difference between say Alfred Hitchcock's idealistic Bodega Bay in The Birds and Woody Allen's stark Manhattan. Better still is the single film comparison of New York as the center of the intellectual world and L.A. as the morally depraved capital of smut and daytime television in Allen's seminal Annie Hall. Few films that take place in California avoid these two categorical concepts: California as paradise and California as a fake kingdom. In Alexander Payne's 2004 film Sideways, he avoids the cliches inherent in setting a film in California by focusing almost entirely on the universal theme of human suffering. Sounds really uplifting right? Well keep in mind that, like its excellent predecessor, 2002's About Schmidt, Payne has a knack for the ambiguous but humanizing ending. He also happens to be a visionary filmmaker and a subtle yet profound screenwriter.

Sideways is the story of two guys, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), who endeavor to enjoy a week of wine tasting, golf and freedom before Jack gets married. Miles is an unpublished author, divorcee and an obsessively self-defeating personality whose passion for wine at first seems simply to be an easy fit for the California location. Jack is a small time actor who knows nothing about wine but holds infinite patience for Miles' violent mood swings. They are the ideal odd couple. As the narrative unfolds, Jack makes it known to Miles that the real reason he is going on this road trip is to get laid (at least) once before he gets married. Miles is repulsed by the idea but goes along with it, albeit passive-aggressively. Without giving away too much (besides the fact that a summary here would be in bad taste since this film is now five years old), Jack gets his wish (with Grey's Anatomy's Sandra Oh no less), puts Miles in an uncomfortable situation with an attractive woman named Maya (Virginia Madsen), they both drink a lot of wine, and go home, whereupon Jack gets happily married. The end.

If that last paragraph were the whole of Sideways I wouldn't be penning this review and I probably wouldn't have seen the film in the first place as I am a budding asshole/film critic who only watches movies that have received some level of critical acclaim. Speaking of complexes, Sideways, in a pivotal scene, reveals itself to be a divinely perceptive character study and that wines are not just an easy way to attract an adult audience to a movie about a guy in therapy. In a conversation between Maya and Miles she asks him what it is about pinot noir, Miles' favorite type of wine, that he likes the most. He expounds about how pinot noir is made from a volatile grape, one that needs constant attention to really bring to its full potential. She then begins a similar monologue about how she loves wine because of the history behind the grapes and how each wine is constantly evolving and changing. I don't know much about wines but in this brilliant piece of dialog the characters essentially some up their respective romantic lives; all their disappointments and their failings. Miles and his wife divorced two years ago and he has never fully gotten over it. He insists on making himself unhappy, concentrating only on where he has failed (his marriage, his novel, etc.). He needs someone to know he's there. His best friend is getting married and he is suffering from the feeling that he is getting old without ever having done anything with his life. Maya has recently overcome a divorce as well but rather than wallow like Miles she has done what she can to forget it. She is finishing her Master's degree in horticulture and is friendly and popular. Still, as she later tells Miles, she can't help but feel the weight of her divorce everyday. Although Mile seems to sometimes use the alcohol content of wine to forget his troubles he, and Maya as well, both ultimately turned to wine to explore some unchartered region of themselves. In Sideways wine is a vessel of self-discovery.

Sideways, in many respects, is a coming of age story, only in this case coming of age doesn't mean turning 13 or 18 or 21, or even the way Truffaut designed it in The 400 Blows: being grown up before you've developed the capacity to understand what being “grown up” entails. Here, coming of age means simply accepting what life has given you and moving forward. It doesn't mean faking happiness, since we can't be happy all the time but it also doesn't mean intentionally making yourself miserable because you think you deserve it. Sideways is a film about savoring and trying to find the best there is. But mostly its about drinking whatever is put on the table. Even a Merlot.

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