A Late Sideways Look

Today I watched Sideways starring Paul Giamatti as Miles Raymond and Thomas Hayden Church as his former college roommate and best friend Jack Cole.

The plot can best be described as a coming of middle age. Two forty-something friends meet so that one can take the other on a bachelors week trip. Soon to be wed Jack is a washed up actor who will do whatever he can to prove that he’s still got it–Miles, a depressed and frustrated writer who teaches middle school English while collecting rejections from publishers. They journey into California wine country, where Miles shows off his knowledge of the grape while Jack works hard trying to get in that last fling before he is locked down forever. A good part of the humor comes from this clash of personalities as this odd couple visits bars, restaurants, and vineyards. However, the real narrative arc comes from Miles’s character as he tries to deal with his failure both in love and in his literary endeavors.

The film was a bit slow and self-indulgent. Long montages abound in which characters eat, chat, drink wine, hike. While the cinematography is lovely–with elegant shots of grapes and wine country, wine glasses and restaurant settings–the montages dragged, and might have been shortened or perhaps cut entirely with little loss to narrative flow. The acting was stiff in the early scenes. However, the actors seemed to reach a point of flow in the later scenes. Giamatti’s depiction of depression and anxiety was easily relatable as was Church’s despondent outburst as Jack reacts to the possibility of losing his fiancée. The angst of midlife crisis combined with the tension surrounding marriage was tangible and propelled the male characters to realistic outcomes. On the other hand, the female characters are flat; while wonderfully acted, with Sandra Oh as the fun-loving Stephanie and Virginia Madsen as the down to earth Maya, they only exist to position the males within the narrative.  In fact, Sideways could easily have been a stage play with just two actors reacting to unseen secondary characters. This fact calls the ending into question; it didn’t seem believable or necessary except to relieve the tension and get viewers out of the theater on a positive note.  Imagine, instead, the film ending with the classroom scene: a student reads from Knowles A Separate Peace, “I did not cry then or ever about Finny. I did not cry even when I stood watching him being lowered into his family’s straight-laced burial ground outside of Boston. I could not escape the feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case.” The student then asks if he should continue reading. The camera closes in slowly on Miles’s face, a study in melancholy. Fade to black. Credits. That would have been awesome. Or melodramatic, but certainly darker, and dark looks good on this film. 

Reviews of Sideways are overwhelmingly positive and it has won numerous awards. I watched the film on a cable TV “on demand” service, which does color my perception since I did not have to spend extra money on tickets and overpriced snacks. I think if I had seen this in the theater, I might have been disappointed. The funny parts weren’t that funny, and the slow parts might have led to uncomfortable fidgeting and irritation without the ease one has at home to step out or become distracted with something else. Nevertheless, I strongly relate to Miles and his feelings of low self-worth, having failed to accomplish anything he sees as worthwhile by middle age, and the hopelessness that comes from loss. The film was visually engaging, the acting was great, and the jazz score by Rolfe Kent was snappy and delightful. All in all, I liked Sideways.

One last thing: as a cat lady, I was especially pleased to see listed in the credits Editorial Cat, Lulu. She seems to have done an excellent job, and I cannot wait to see more of her work.

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