Sideways (2004)

Directed by Alexander Payne

Despite many great comic moments from some wonderful characters, the movie Sideways feels a little too real, a little too gloomy and serious for me to call it a comedy.

To me, this is better described as a drama with comic elements.

And despite the numerous accolades, I would say it is only partially successful. It weaves back and forth from comedy to drama rather the way Miles, Paul Giamatti’s character, weaves. A bit drunkenly.

Miles and his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) are hitting middle-age.

Jack is to be married in about a week so he and Miles are off on a bachelor’s week-long jaunt through California wine country – Miles’ idea of a good, final send off for his friend.

But though well-schooled in wines, and seeing himself as an expert, Miles is essentially a quiet drunk – which is probably why the wine tasting trip appeals to him. Jack, on the other hand, is a pleasant though not terrifically bright middle-class, middle-aged sex hound.

Though friends, the two personalities couldn’t be more opposite. Jack wants to party and get laid – he insists he’s also going to get Miles laid too (and he sees no conflict with the fact he, Jack, is to be married shortly).

Miles, on the other hand, is essentially depressed. He’s negative and morose and sees his life as a failure. He’s an English teacher, which he sees as a failure, and a novelist who cannot get published, another failure, and a divorced man – one more failure.

So what we have is really a road movie – a buddy flick, though of a very different kind than Hollywood usually presents. And that’s a good thing. A very good thing.

Along the way, the two men meet up with two women: Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Miles knows Maya in a casual way. She’s a waitress at one of the places he frequents on his wine excursions.

Each is attracted to the other, to a degree, but Miles is too timid and has too high an expectation of failure to do anything about it. Stephanie is a pourer at a winery with whom Jack clicks, though really only in his usual shallow, sexual way.

Although the movie’s focus is on Miles, this is an ensemble piece and when it works it works wonderfully because of this. The casting is perfect as are the performances. I actually would have liked to have seen more with Madsen and Oh as both had such interesting, engaging characters.

I suppose the reason I can’t completely embrace the film has to do with how it concludes. As mentioned, it weaves back and forth from comedy to drama and back again but in the last maybe fifteen minutes the comedy falls away as Miles is finally forced to really look at his life.

The tone of the film becomes quite weighty and when the film finally ends … well, don’t blink or you’ll miss it (as I almost did).

In other words, I found something very unsatisfying with the ending. For me, it felt incomplete, as if they had simply run out of film. I don’t know exactly what it was I found missing. I know what the ending was; I know why it ends as it does. But it felt wrong – unfinished.

Part of the reason the film seems to weave as it does is because in Sideways we’re given real people living real lives and doing and saying the kinds of things real people do. While intellectually I admire and applaud this aspect of the film, I think it’s very hard to make this kind of film work viscerally for an audience.

Sometimes Hollywood horseshit works best because I think for the average audience reality doesn’t convey truth very well. Reality is disjointed and that is off-putting, which makes the truth inherent in a story difficult to communicate. The transmission is sent but the receiving end is down, so to speak.

Having said that, Sideways is well worth seeing. There are some great moments, including one brilliant scene between Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen. There is great dialogue and timing in many scenes too. While I can’t say I loved the movie, I certainly liked it and will likely watch it again. Quite happily, too.

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