Kirk A.C. Marshall

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Film Review (#1): "Sideways"

*Understanding Jack's Plight: A Review of Alexander Payne's Sideways*
Published: 25 / 01/ 05 (c)

Esteemed and well-regarded American critic A.O. Scott may truthfully have something when he unabashedly proclaims struggling indie maverick Alexander Payne’s most recent wine-dark comedy “Sideways” as being “the most over-rated film of the year”. Indeed, he may have journalistic constipation. Assuredly, Scott is a notable custodian of encompassing filmic knowledge, and his contentions towards “Sideways”, its tongue-in-cheek ambivalence and its playfully pretentious higher-than-thou temperament, don’t go unwarranted. Certainly, “Sideways” is a film with the absolute facility to polarise the collective opinions of its viewership. A small, nostalgic funny-sad story extolling the neuroses of over-the-hill and over-anxious middle-aged men longing to be in their early twenties once more, doth not cinematic literature make. But then, “Sideways”, replete with its impeccable performances and arguably the best screenplay of this past year (adapted from ornery satirist Rex Pickett’s little-known novel) isn’t attempting to institute itself as anything remotely near biblical. This, then, is increasingly something that the self-conscious and muckraking fault-finders of movie criticism are failing to realise.

                “Sideways” is a buddy film, a road movie, an intellectual farce, a moral wine-sour satire, and an enduring testament to the alcoholic desire for romance, but its beauty lies in the unsaid reactions, the haunted eyes of its cynical everyman Miles (last-year American Splendor’s Paul Giamatti) and, unusually, surly (though very funny) lady’s man Jack (TV’s Ned of Ned & Stacey fame). It is in the quieting moments between Miles’s self-deprecating invective and Jack’s aspired nymphomania that we find two confused and soulful men attempting to drown out the melancholy of life’s lost opportunities with a highball of Cabernet, a bottle of Pinot Noir, and at one point, a Styrofoam cup of vintage red. Indefinitely, it’s the honesty poured in barrels and casks upon the screen’s canvas by the film’s actors that allows “Sideways” to sing that little bit longer.

                The song of which we speak is one of failed novelist Miles meeting up with charismatic small-part actor Jack to wend their way through central California’s wine country, in tribute to Jack’s last week of uber-masculine bachelorhood. As expected, the road trip inexorably pinballs sideways with brilliantly comedic aplomb, when Jack commits himself to the task of getting Miles, suffering after a protracted divorce, laid – preferably by “a fucking hottie with a cosy box.” These moments of poetry spooling from behind Jack’s sunny and ebullient grin ensures that “Sideways” is always suitably silly, even when the proverbial Merlot (well, Miles proclaims it as shit) hits the fan. Both Miles and Jack find their enduring friendship – and the respective emotional baggage with which they’ve packed for the trip –  jeopardised when they initiate attempts at romance with radiant Maya (the perfect Virginia Madsen, “Sideways”’s beatific heartbeat) and the sinfully cool and sexy Stephanie (Sandra Oh, versatile film comedienne and Payne’s very own wife). Before “Sideways” concludes, one will have at least been eminently moved by Maya’s soliloquy of the alchemy and magic found in wine, and probably have shrieked with insane laughter at Jack’s description of high adventuring through an ostrich farm, whilst totally starkers. (Reverberently,  and from a subjective perspective, I’ll never look at big-breasted restaurant waitresses the same way again). And admittedly, the enjoyment derived from fleeting moments like these will come despite whether you hold unwavering alliance with A.O. Scott’s severe beliefs towards the film or not.

                In reiteration, “Sideways” is undeniably a little film, with appropriately small intrinsic objectives. Its incentives are not to impress upon the external viewer a definitive viewpoint towards the angst and nostalgia of demasculinised mid-life, and neither is it invariably striving towards making concrete the opinion that drinking excessively is necessarily bad, or necessarily good. What “Sideways” is informed by is the edifying notion that drinking as much as Miles and Jack do, when in the extended throes of embitterment and self-regret, is a decisive life choice; essentially, what is being illuminated here within the film, is the possibility of alcoholism, the blossoming afterglow suffusing your insides after that honest tipple, the unproven devotion inherent of these self-reflexive characters that having a vice to turn to, be it wine or love or tongue-in-cheek self-doubt, does offer you some form of crutch when you feel incapable of powering onwards. “Sideways” is redolently not advocating the compulsion to drink in effect against the fickle developments of life. It is merely stipulating that like Miles’s hogshead of 1961 Cheval Blanc, we all function by attaching ourselves to something that will offer promise in our humdrum existences, that as chaotic or punch-drunk as this world can tend towards being, we know that the future is never ineffably nihilistic. Thus, without being cloying or precious or an exercise in Hollywood sacharine bullshit, “Sideways” is asserting that being who you are, depressing or otherwise, will never alter, and there’s an eternal hope in that lonely sentiment that imbues this unique moviegoing experience with an uncommon touch of wonder.

                Don’t especially go into “Sideways” heedlessly anticipating to see the best film of 2005. Make the effort to be unrestrictedly open to all that this sad-sack coming-of-age story can give, and you’ll likely extract a feeling of deep kinship with it. Behind the wine-fug veneer of Phedon Papamichael’s almost peerless cinematography and the mad-hatted peacock antics of Giamatti and Church, there’s a tale that’s never dictatorial or sermonising, telling us that being a bit of a bemused wanker is not the most horrific vocation in life. What’s more, there’s a kicking musical score and sun-torched panoramic visuals of sprawling summery vineyards; there’s the sardonic Payne “revenge” motif hitting its high mark when Miles learns of the prospective future of his sprawler of a novel; there’s Alexander Payne’s and Jim Taylor’s cyclical script that manages to end on precisely the same note it commenced upon; and through it all there’s two guys whom I, for one, recognisably wouldn’t be averse to hanging out with on some intoxicating weekend. Perhaps that’s what A.O. Scott and the many analytical phalanxes of questioning reviewers incidentally failed to miss. “Sideways” ain’t cinematic Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde, but like Jack Kerouac’s millennial and whirligig book On the Road, Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” may outstay other more ambitious films for years to come. It’s like a good glass of room-temperature Chardonnay, methinks.

                And that might be the most adequate method to gauge a movie like “Sideways” by. It’s doesn’t particularly hold an instant big hit on the tongue, but it’s smooth on the palate. It’ll make your eyes dance and your belly burn, and, ultimately, you’ll smile more than once.


**** out of *****.