All About “Sideways”

I doubt “Sideways” will win Best Picture, but maybe it should.

One of director Alexander Payne’s goals is to return American films to the glory days of the 1970s. “Sideways” is Payne’s best film yet and it accomplishes that goal of reminding us of what American films have lost in the last thirty years. Specifically, Payne shines a light on character and ignores spectacle.

It’s rare to see a film where the two main characters are so pathetic and even despicable, yet so endearingly human that you end up pulling for them anyway. I went into the screening this weekend firmly resistant to relating to Paul Giamatti’s character, Miles, but ended getting choked up more than once during the film—an effort to look bold in front of my wife was the only thing that kept me from actually blubbering. Many of the films of 70s had the same unflinching attitude toward showing a character’s humanity through their flaws and Miles and Jack fit the bill. However, what makes Payne such a promising filmmaker is that he’s not only interested in turning the clock back, he’s also committed to intense emotional moments that give his main characters (and by extension humanity) a shot at redemption. Both “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” deliver a dose of hope at the end.

Giamatti, by the way, was robbed by the Academy and is way more deserving of an Oscar than a number of the nominees—this is clearly the sad result of a sort of glamorism, for a lack of a better word, among Academy voters. Giamatti may not be good-looking, but when Miles runs into his ex-wife at the end of the film, you see a whole lifetime of missed opportunity pass through his eyes and Giamatti doesn’t have to say a word. It’s a remarkable performance.

Giamatti’s supported here by Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen who unlike Giamatti had their work recognized by the Academy. They’re both extremely deserving. Madsen’s monologue about the evolving nature of wine is enchanting. Church’s comic timing and misguided lust for life drive the story and the passive Miles forward. His contribution was invaluable. I expect Church to win an award. Madsen faces tougher competition, but also has a decent shot. Kudos to Payne for casting actors that look like real people and are neither drop dead gorgeous, or well enough known yet to be surrounded by years of audience expectations about what they should bring to a performance.

“Sideways” will probably not win Best Picture, but it should have a lock on the Best Adapted Screenplay award, which is often a better indicator of what the best picture of the year is than the actual Best Picture.

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8 thoughts on “All About “Sideways”

  1. Do you really think they just screwed over Giamatti just because he’s not good-looking? I haven’t seen Sideways yet, and need to, but that strikes me as a little odd.

    I do, however, favor a return to the 70s-style filmmaking and personal grit. Anything that can bring us another Annie Hall would be nice.

  2. Sure, I could be wrong. I didn’t mean to suggest there was an overt conspiracy, but Giamatti’s work was overlooked two years in a row. Last year’s AMERICAN SPLENDOR was even more unrecognized than SIDEWAYS. It’s rare for a leading man to be played by someone of pedestrian looks in general and Giamatti’s character Miles is a bit of an inconsequential personality to begin with, perhaps that’s why he was slighted he did too good of a job of being the type of guy who lives a life of quiet desperation and who blends into the background.

  3. It’s such a strong Best Actor field, though, as it so often is: Don Cheadle, Johnny Depp, Leonardo diCaprio, Clint Eastwood, Jamie Foxx. None of these guys are *obvious* evidence of Paul Giamatti having been unfairly robbed.

    Great post, Brian, and I agree that character over spectacle, and that “shot at redemption” you mention, are wonderful things to see in a film. I myself did not think that SIDEWAYS did those things, though. I thought the characters of Jack and especially Miles were sort of capital-O Ordinary — that is, more ordinary than anyone I’ve ever known. Real people will always surprise you; Miles and Jack never surprised me. In fact, the whole movie telegraphed cues about how we’re supposed to classify things: Miles and the wineries and wines he likes are Authentic; that bad winery toward the end, with its sensitive guitar player and polo-shirted employees, is Fake, as are the senior citizens on bus tours of wine country and the bad, chainish steakhouse (with its polo-shirted employees!) Jack and Miles go to toward the end. Maya isn’t Just A Waitress, she’s an Intelligent Woman, getting a Master’s degree. (We find out later the kind of low opinion SIDEWAYS has of waitresses who AREN’T in graduate school.)

    Yes, Jack and Miles are deeply flawed, and yes, I did end up pulling for them to find happiness, in a way — how could I not, given the abject misery in which this movie places them? But, except for that very good scene at the end, between Miles and his ex-wife, and the vague allusion Maya makes to the pain in Miles’s book, the movie never gives the sense of something really strange about these guys, something that makes them more than profiles, people that you can’t, finally, sum up and pass (even generous) judgment on. Granted, MOST movies don’t give us characters that real, but SIDEWAYS purports to a certain kind of realism (and puts us through considerable discomfort in the service of that realism).

    When I consider a sometimes-uncomfortable movie like LIFE IS SWEET, and the incredible moments that come from nowhere in that film to tell you these characters can NOT be summarized, or classified, or dismissed, it makes me think SIDEWAYS is only pretend-realistic.

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a great quote that I think applies to discussions of realist art, suggesting how something that attempts to be universal, or Everyman-ish, will end up bearing little resemblance to actual reality:

    “In a work of art the universal dwells in the particular; the particular does not simply stand for the universal.”

  4. Great post, and great comments Melissa! If “realistic” and/or “universal” is what this movie was supposed to accomplish, then it should have done away with quite a few things that are either A) movie cliche or B) just not that likely to ever happen (for those who have seen the film, I’m thinking walking-in-on-your-friend-having-sex-with-someone-other-than-his-fiance for A and naked-man-running-through-street for B). It’s not that either of these moments necessarily offended me… But boy, maybe I don’t get out enough if this is what REAL life is like.

    The movie had its moments and was definitely much more interesting than “The Aviator”.

  5. As always, I enjoyed your response, Melissa.

    I may have enjoyed “Sideways” more than you because I disagree with your basic premise that real people will always surprise you. I believe real people will rarely surprise you and the same can be said for most fictional characters. In either case, it’s unfair to hold up flesh and blood humans for comparison with fictional characters. The novelist Thomas Hardy said the finest drawn character in any novel is a bag of bones compared to the most ordinary person we’d encounter on the street and I agree.

    You’re right in saying that Miles and Jack are ordinary with a capital O. I’m sure Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor would be pleased to hear that. Every choice from the casting to the locations was intended to create that sense of the ordinary. The sad truth is that whether it’s a fictional character or a real person we nearly always sum them up, pass judgment on them, and move on. The ambition of “Sideways” is deceivingly simple. It only asks that you look under an ordinary exterior for a brief moment longer than usual before moving on.

    You insightfully mention a number of examples of the authentic versus the fake, but I think it’s more illuminating (although, at first it may seem a minor distinction) to look at “Sideways” as an exploration of the ordinary versus extraordinary—in terms of people, appearances, and of course, wine. For me, this shines a light on the scene people tend to find most disturbing, when Miles returns to get Jack’s wallet.

    In Jack and Miles you have two characters that are quite ordinary, but as an actor and writer respectively, they aspire to be extraordinary. The crucial difference between the two is that Miles actually has a taste for the extraordinary, particularly in wine. Jack, in contrast, only has a taste for the ordinary whether it’s wine, women, or food. He proves this time and time again by savoring inferior wine, by leading Miles to the bad winery and the steakhouse, and ultimately by seducing a woman who is ordinary inside and out—the steak house waitress. Jack proves that no amount of education, broken noses, or beautiful fiancées will lead him to redemption on his own. It’s his ordinary looking buddy who barely has the courage to leave his hotel room that has to break into a stranger’s house to save him. Not to get too archetypal about the scene, but Miles, like all the heroes of old, has to enter the cave/dark hallway, face a dragon/scary husband, and escape with the treasure/wedding rings. As uncomfortable as the scene is to watch it’s crucial to illustrate that the ordinary container of Miles holds something extraordinary.

    Which brings me to the brilliance of one of the closing scenes when Miles drinks the prize wine of his collection out of a styrofoam cup in a run-of-the-mill burger place. Miles is the cup. He’s a non-descript generic container with something special inside. You see Miles in that restaurant and you might walk on by quickly summing up, or passing judgment as you say, but the point of this movie is to make us wonder just a little longer what’s inside the ordinary containers all around us. In that it succeeded, at least for me.

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