As a young buck, I made the decidedly bad mistake of drinking so much cheap burgundy one evening (brand name, Taylor) that I became violently ill for the next couple of days. It was la gueule de bois de la mort, and it had the effect of never allowing me to drink any sort of dry wine, red or white, for the rest of my life. If I am in a situation where wine is the only drink of choice, I'll become a girly man and order white zinfandel. This has caused more than one homosexual to sidle up next to me, only to be thwarted when I reveal my secret: I'd really rather be drinking cheap American beer (brand name, Busch) and scratching my ass while watching SEC college football.
This is all to say, I know nothing about wine and have always had a love/hate relationship with those who would consider themselves "wine snobs" (my words) or connoisseurs. I do know that one stores bottles of wine sideways to keep the cork moist and thus expanded in order to prevent oxidation. Thus, the two men in this movie by Alexander Payne, according to the title, are in some sort of storage pattern in their lives. That's fairly easy to see. Miles, played by Paul Giamatti (Harvey Pekar in a movie I mostly didn't like, last year's American Splendor) is a fairly unattractive man who has been divorced for a couple of years. He is a fairly failed novelist who finds himself teaching English Lit to eighth graders. Jack, played by Thomas Hayden Church (Lowell the mechanic on the sitcom Wings -- perhaps the most oft-satirized TV show in history), is a soap opera actor who is now reduced to voice overs for falling interest rates. Jack has a bit of promise in his life since he's about to be married to a beautiful and wealthy girl whose dad has all but offered him some sort of partnership in a lucrative real estate business. Jack's pretty much got it made for an over-the-hill actor hanging onto his good looks by a thread and about six more months. But he's sideways and his growing pains in the fermentation process includes getting laid as many times as possible before he gets married in just a few short days. To be fair, he's dead set on getting his underwhemingly attractive friend laid, as well, but who can say if this is from magnanimity or guilt? Either way, the two are off on a road trip into wine country prior to Jack's wedding.
Alexander Payne is the director here, and you will know him from one fabulous movie, Election, with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, and one fairly decent movie, About Schmidt, with the soon to be out of work Jack Nicholson. The screenplay is by Mr. Payne and Jim Taylor who also worked with him on the other two films mentioned. Sideways is based on a novel by Rex Pickett.
I saw this film at the local "avant-garde cinemaplex" where a small bottle of water costs $3.50 and they will shoot you with tranquilizer darts and drag you to the bad part of town if you dare to attempt to bring in any container of water on your own. This is the type of place where there are old couches and air popped popcorn and mocha lattes made fresh and where you will find at least three screens showing anti-Bush films by Michael Moore and his ilk. The sad thing about such places is that they make no money and thus cannot afford to turn on the heat when it's cold or the air conditioner when it's hot. Also, the print I saw and the sound track I heard were pathetic. I don't know if the film was meant to look so washed out and dated, but I can be fairly certain that the light jazz played during the road trip sections was not supposed to snap, crackle and pop. The music score by Rolfe Kent seemed to be trying to capture the tone of other dysfunctional buddy films of the past, such as The Odd Couple. I've read some reviews which refer to "dazzling landscapes along California's central coastline." If you see this film in a theater, I hope you see such marvelously filmed landscapes. I did not, in the print screened in the hippie theater in my city.
The two road trippers wind up involved with two ladies, thus making the film a foursome. And a form of golf will be played before the movie's over. In fact,
one cannot comment on this film without discussing the brief attempts at golf in which the two buddies engage. There are "on the road" films with such folks as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby; folks who actually played golf. And it should be mentioned that the director says he has a handicap of 2. Apparently, in the book, things happen on the golf course at distances of over 200 yards -- things which have to be whittled down to under a hundred yards because the golf swing of Mr. Giamatti is so pathetic. I would have thought that Mr. Giamatti, the son of former Yale president and baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti (you see a photo of them in the film), might have put just a bit more work into learning how to swing a golf club so as to make this part of the story more realistic. I mean, Kevin Costner really didn't have much of a swing before he made Tin Cup, and now golf is a fairly large and satisfying part of his life, or so I hear. This dweeb shanks every shot he hits in the movie, and you can bet your ass that there was camera trickery involved in order to make it appear that he's even hit the ball a hundred yards in anything approximating a straight line.
The highlight of the film, both in terms of meaning as well as acting, is when Miles and his would-be new girlfriend, Maya (played by Virginia Madsen), are discussing the reasons why wine enchants both of them. Maya lovingly says her fondness for wine is due to the fact that a bottle is a breathing, living thing that changes depending on when it's opened. Miles implies that he is a difficult case and needs to be nurtured like the Pinot grape. Maya sees a larger picture and implies that the evolution of the grape to wine symbolizes the secret twists and turns of love. Miles may or may not be ready for opening, and that's what she has to decide. This is why a crappy ending like him knocking on her door with the rest left unsaid is OK. We have to decide if he's ready or not. My guess is he's past his peak, as she was so ready to suggest by way of hints such as her assessment that one brand they are sampling has "too much alcohol" due to its age. Did I mention that Miles has a drinking problem and is too old to be acting this way? I was probably not as hopeful for Miles' future as the writer would have wished. His failed novel is called "The Day After Yesterday," and when he reveals this to his would-be love interest, she immediately says, "Oh, you mean 'today'?" This is a perfect summation of the failed writer in one sentence.
It's odd that in a couple of reviews I read, the name of John Cassavetes came up. I just watched a film called Hysterical Blindness recently, and that one had reviews dropping his name all over the place, probably due to the role Gena Rowlands plays as the so-called "mother" to a helpless grown-up child. If you see Hysterical Blindness, please compare the authenticity of the characters to folks you really know to the characters in Sideways. This is the basic difference between art and artifice. In case you missed my point, Hysterical Blindness sucks and Sideways does not suck. In an interview, Alexander Payne says, "I'm interested in revitalizing the American cinema of the 70s, with its emphasis on real people and real struggles -- and I think we desperately need human movies right now." I think he is referring to movies such as the ones Cassavetes made during that time period. It's ironic that I recently heard that a box set of Cassavetes' prime body of work was just released on DVD.
So, would you actually enjoy this film? Here is a list. If you can answer "yes" to any of these questions, I think you'd enjoy this movie. If you answer "yes" to two or more of these questions, I think this movie is a "must see" for you.
Do you consider yourself a wine snob?
Are you kidding yourself that you can actually make a living by writing?
Are you an alcoholic?
Are you tired of the "beautiful people" and "Hollywood blockbusters"?
Have you ever stolen money from your parents to support a lifestyle which you cannot afford?
Do you believe I would recommend a movie that you would actually hate?