(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)
Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, from the original novel by Rex Pickett
Directed by Alexander Payne
As anyone familiar with the craft of storytelling can attest, there are basically two main parts to the process that are of crucial importance: of creating a set of compelling characters, and then creating a compelling plot for those characters that moves the story forward. And let's admit it -- that a majority of people the majority of the time (especially in the US) find the plot of a story more important than the characters, or at least will judge an artistic project more on those terms. But there can be great joy as well in projects that concentrate on characters much more than "action," especially when the storyteller is an expert on the human condition; because really, that's ultimately what stories are about in the first place, why they exist and why we seek them out, is that they hold a funhouse mirror up to humanity in the best of cases, letting us see both our own reflection and things we never realized about ourselves before.
And thus do we come to the work of Alexander Payne, a character-oriented screenwriter and director whose career so far has been a short but impressive one; among the six films he's now written and directed include the award-winning Citizen Ruth (1996), the award-winning Election (1999), the award-winning About Schmidt (2002), and his latest, 2004's multiple-award-winning Sideways. And let's plainly admit it -- that that last film mentioned, the one being reviewed today, unfortunately ended up becoming a victim of its own success when it first came out; that it just so happened to be released in a year filled with mostly lousy films, and therefore ended up receiving more hype than it deserved, thus disappointing a legion of people who went out and saw it based on the insane amount of glowing reviews it got. That was certainly the case with me, for example, when I first saw it in the theatres in 2004, and to tell you the truth I hadn't been planning on watching it again; but then I ran into a copy of it on accident at my local library last week, so on a whim decided to check it out.
And I have to admit, I'm really glad I did; because now that all the hype is over, now that people have kinda forgotten about it again, Sideways turns out to be a lot better than I originally remembered, an almost perfect character study for those who are into such a thing, with just enough of a compelling plot to not turn it into one of those artsy go-nowhere movies that I generally can't stand. It's the story of two men, to be specific -- Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), roommates their freshman year in college, still best friends in their early forties, both still living in southern California where they originally went to school. See, it turns out that both men are in the arts themselves, although are not exactly what one could call successes in their fields -- Jack, for example, is an almost-washed-up actor, whose soap-opera career had already peaked nearly 15 years before the events of this movie, while Miles is a frustrated novelist, teaching English to junior-high-schoolers while dealing with rejection after rejection from a series of obscure small presses no one has heard of in the first place.
It turns out, in fact, that Jack is getting very close to giving up the business for good; he is scheduled to get married in a week, actually, and has been seriously considering joining his Armenian father-in-law in the real-estate game. It's this catalyst that spurs the plot of the movie itself; Miles as his best man has decided to give Jack a sophisticated week-long sendoff by going on a road trip through central California's wine country, teaching his friend how to appreciate fine spirits while his friend teaches him how to enjoy golf. And let's face it, that this is about as complicated as the actual plot gets -- they leave, they spend a week on the road, various small adventures happen to them, and they come home. And seriously, that's about it as far as the actual storyline.
Ah, but when you start digging under the surface of that simplistic plot, that's when things start getting really interesting with Sideways; because this is not really a story about wine or road trips at all, when you look at the movie closely, but rather a complex examination of male middle-age, of the various ways us penis-owners of the world deal with the crushing reality of our forties, and of the heartbreaking realizations many of us men make in those years. Because it's true, I've discovered, as I start drifting into that age bracket myself these days; that this really is the period in many men's lives when it finally starts hitting them, all the things that they're never going to actually accomplish. That they really never will be the lead singer of that indie-rock band they've always imagined they would someday be; really never will win a Pulitzer or an Oscar; really never will be rich and famous; in fact most likely never will even have a viable career as an artist in the first place. It's a time when many men have to face up to these facts whether they want to or not, simply because they start realizing that they're too old to go through the normal career arc needed for such things, not to mention no longer having the patience to live a 22-year-old's lifestyle anymore.
This is a traumatic thing for most men to realize, and unfortunately many of us don't handle the news very well; and that's really what Sideways is about, when all is said and done, is watching these two particular men deal with this realization themselves, and the various ridiculous things they do in an attempt to stave off the inevitable. Jack's mission during this pre-wedding road trip, for example, is to get laid as much as humanly possible before the nuptials; it's this drive to recapture his youth as a sex symbol, in fact, that serves as the justification for many of the story developments in the movie, including the main one of hooking up with two female wine-industry buddies halfway through the trip -- sassy Stephanie (Sandra Oh) and reserved Maya (Virginia Madsen, a special standout among an already amazing cast). It's because of the insanely fast relationship that develops between Jack and Stephanie that Miles and Maya are forced around each other so much in the first place; it's because of this forced time together that we start understanding just how emotionally damaged both Miles and Maya are; and it's because of this damage, and the yearning behind it to get over this damage, that we eventually come around to rooting for Miles and Maya to get together themselves.
Because make no mistake, you'll be rooting for Miles and Maya by the end of this film, despite all the character flaws inherent in them both; or maybe that's because of the character flaws inherent in them both? This is Payne's biggest strength as a filmmaker, after all, is that he's a master of showing good people doing bad things, things that make you love these good people all the more because you understand where the bad things are coming from. When Miles, for example, drinks too much during the foursome's first double date, and sneaks off to drunkenly call his ex-wife, we can't help but to cringe, not only because we don't want him to do it but because we understand why he's doing it; because his life is seemingly falling apart, that is, and right in the middle of it he discovers that his ex has gotten married again, news that would put any man in Miles' position into an emotional tailspin. And when Maya interacts with Miles in the halting, push-and-pull way she does throughout the week, we understand this motivation as well; that she is recently divorced, that she can plainly see all the baggage that Miles is carrying around with him these days, but can also see the intelligence and sensitivity and just plain warmth lurking underneath.
(And in fact Payne brilliantly describes all this in a metaphorical way in the movie itself, during the infamous "Pinot Noir" conversation about halfway through, one of the best pieces of movie writing I've ever seen, which itself was unfortunately the victim of overhype as well when the movie first came out. Seriously, if you can, try to go into that scene without thinking of the zillion friends and critics who told you what a brilliant scene it is; if you can manage to do that, there's a real treasure in store for you.)
And of course no discussion of Sideways is complete without talking about the relationship between the two men themselves; because in this case Payne really does get it absolutely perfect, absolutely perfect, of the ways that two deep platonic male friends who have known each other for decades interact with each other. Because the fact is that Miles and Jack spend most of the movie kind of annoyed at each other, in most cases precisely because of the inherent character flaws that you just know the other has been having to deal with for years now; that when Jack runs off with yet another random woman, you just know that Miles has been dealing with such a thing all the way back to the freshman dorm room they shared, and that when Jack warns Miles not to drink too much and "go to the dark side," you just know he originally came up with that phrase when they were both juniors or so. It's a real treat to watch these two interact over the course of the movie; because the writing is just so strong, the acting so strong as well, it really does feel like you're watching two life-long friends, instead of a couple of random actors who have been hired to play the parts.
(YIKES -- there's a small spoiler in the next paragraph!)
Ultimately Sideways has a message that I love, even if it is horrifically old-fashioned and just a touch sexist as well; that really, seriously, sometimes the key to a man's salvation actually is simply a good woman who will love him, who will support his efforts and always bring out the best side of him. That's what relationships are all about, after all, and why we get into them in the first place -- to find what is hopefully our soulmate, our "better half," the person who can magically put all our whiny mid-life crises into proper perspective, and help us not let them drive us crazy. When near the end of the movie Maya compliments Miles' unpublished novel, and in a way that makes it clear that she really did deeply and truly understand it, it's a scene that literally made my heart break (and in fact tears are welling in my eyes again just thinking about it); because it's exactly what Miles has needed all along, is simply someone who believes in him, and who does so in a profound way that has nothing to do with being his childhood friend or a paid agent. It's THE absolutely most crucial scene of the entire movie, as far as I'm concerned, because it makes us realize that everything's going to be okay; that Miles isn't going to stop writing, that he will eventually get published, that there is a future for him beyond being a nebbish junior-high English teacher. And after all the ups and downs we've gone through with Miles over the previous two hours, his redemption at the end is enough to make you want to stand up in your living room and cheer out loud.
(WHEW -- spoiler over!)
It's certainly not a fast-paced film, that's for sure, and anyone looking for a traditional plot-heavy movie is sure to be let down here; but for any of you who like tight character studies that ring absolutely true to the human spirit, Sideways is a refreshing gift from an industry that doesn't usually provide such things. Now that the hype has died down, now that you've kinda forgotten about the movie in the first place, now is a perfect time to revisit it again, or to visit it for the first time if the hype originally turned you off altogether. I have a feeling that you won't be disappointed.
Out of 10:
--For those who don't know, this is the only movie in history to win the Best Screenplay award from all ten major organizations that give out such awards each year (Oscars, Golden Globes, Writers Guild of America, BAFTA, National Board of Review, National Society of Critics, Broadcast Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Association, Chicago Film Critics Association, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association).
--Also for those who don't know, sales of Pinot Noir in the US surged by 20 percent in the months following the original release of this film. (And consequently, sales of Merlot [which Miles hates] dropped by 10 percent nationally.)
--Curious as to who picked out the actual wine featured in this movie? Why, it was Payne himself!
--George Clooney campaigned for the part of Jack, but Payne actually turned him down if you can believe it, saying that he was too famous a star for the role to work.
--Ironically, the one treasured bottle of wine that Miles owns (a 1961 ChÃ¢teau Cheval Blanc) is a combination of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the two types of grapes Miles most complains about during the movie.
--The scenes taking place at the "tourist trap winery" Frass Canyon were actually shot at the winery owned by '50s movie star Fess Parker.
--And by the way, if you piece together the California highways Miles is driving on in the beginning of the movie, you can figure out that Jack's in-laws live in either Brentwood or Pacific Palisades.
Best viewed: With someone you like laughing with, and someone you don't mind crying in front of.
Next on my queue list: The Squid and the Whale, the autobiographical tale from master screenwriter Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and more), concerning his screwed-up intellectual childhood. Ooh, man, I can't wait for this one. And don't forget, a review of The Passion of Ayn Rand is coming next week too!