The Manufactured Movie

Sideways

Alexander Payne’s Sideways begins and ends with a knock on a door. The doors are different; the people who knock are different; and the purposes of the knocks are different.

Yet those knocks are meant to signify something. They represent the terminals of a difficult transition: from passive and static drunk to active romantic, a man who savors his wine/life instead of drowning in it.

And at the center of the movie is a speech describing what wine means — how it’s special and important and, in its way, a living, ever-changing thing. This lecture is delivered to the man described above, and it’s beautifully, thoughtfully written, and far too obviously intended to resonate in the film’s narrative. Wine equals people, you see, and the development of a bottle of fermented grapes mirrors the human life cycle.

It’s too much.

Sideways is first and foremost a road comedy, featuring a pair of friends — the failing novelist Miles (Paul Giamatti) and the failing actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church) — who have nothing in common except a dorm room they shared their freshman year of college. The movie’s best joke is the one it underplays: that Miles and Jack don’t recognize that they barely know, let alone like, each other.

This could have been a wicked satire in the vein of Payne’s fabulous Election, and intermittently it effectively skewers these middle-aged losers. Miles is a pretentious wine snob, yet his life’s a disaster; he resorts to stealing money from his mother when she’d happily give it to him. The none-too-bright Jack is suffocated by the prospect of his impending nuptials and is, as a result, looking to get laid as much as possible before submitting to the ball and chain of marriage, never even considering the possibility of not getting hitched. As in Election, the characters are easy marks, but they’re written and performed sharply enough to have life in them.

But Sideways contains a second thread, the one about Miles recovering from his post-divorce stupor and maybe, just maybe, finding love. It almost seems to come from another movie, and even though it’s heavy-handed, it might have worked if the movie drew its tone more fully from its comedy instead of its drama. (Tone seems to be Payne’s nagging blind spot. See: About Schmidt.) Sideways’ texture is wistful and full of its own truth, when it should be irreverent and bawdy.

For the record, I have nothing against wistfulness and being full of one’s own truth, but only when they’re earned and earnest. As well made as it is, Sideways is slyly, insidiously cynical and calculating, ultimately bordering on misanthropic, and that sticks a knife in the movie’s heart. When you’re inviting a majority of the audience to mock how highfalutin and pathetic the central character is, you can’t get them to cheer him on his journey to better mental health.

And here I come back to Election. Payne’s 1999 movie was pointed but not mean. Rather than being malicious, it was merely clear-eyed about its characters and their flaws. You got the idea that the writer/director liked hapless teacher Jim McAllister and the aggressively cheery, aggressively upwardly mobile Tracy Flick.

Sideways has no warmth in its heart for Miles or Jack, but it doesn’t have malice toward them, either. The primary motivation of Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor, adapting Rex Pickett’s debut novel, seems to be creating an art-house movie with the widest possible audience. It’s been designed and fabricated rather than written. As a result, Sideways might be the safest independent movie I’ve ever seen. Is it any wonder it comes from the prestige arm of a major studio, 20th Century Fox?

The movie positively panders, most obviously in the characters of Miles and Jack. No matter who you are — or, crucially, how you feel about wine — you’ll laugh at one of them and like the other. If you think Miles is an uptight bore, you’re likely to find Jack riotously hedonistic. But if you find Jack a boor, you’ll probably fall in love with Miles. If you love wine, you’ll identify with Miles and hope for good things with Maya, the soulful explainer of the vine’s allure. If you enjoy wine primarily as a vehicle to drunkenness, you’ll appreciate Jack’s “tastes pretty good to me” response to anything put in front of him.

In virtually every way, Sideways works hard to play all the angles. It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s heart-warming. It has sex and booze and nudity and a little bit of violence. It has comedy of the high and low varieties. The guy who cheats on his fiancée gets beat up for being such a cad, but everything turns out okay in the end. And it’s generally smart without being intellectually taxing.

Walking down the middle of the road isn’t necessarily a bad place to be; it keeps you from getting mauled by oncoming vehicles. And it seems to work for most people with Sideways. Nearly all critics have fallen in love with the movie, and based on last week’s Golden Globe nominations, this marginally independent flick should be considered a serious Oscar contender. Hell, my mother even liked it, and she and the critics can usually only agree on Pixar movies.

I don’t begrudge the movie its all-things-to-all-people aspirations. Pieces of April, last year’s holiday sleeper, had a similar kitchen-sink approach and was messy, but its heart could not be questioned. And as a result it worked.

There’s no real heart in Sideways, and whatever in the movie resembles one is mechanical rather than organic. It feels manufactured.

What tipped me off was the movie’s turning point, in which Miles’ absentmindedness spurs the plot’s conflicts: He accidentally lets slip a secret.

You’ve seen this moment a dozen times before, and it comes direct from the Great American Sitcom Cliché Factory. It exists because it’s critical to the plot that the information be revealed at some point mid-narrative, and the writer(s) can’t make it work except to have somebody blurt it out, even though it’s typically out-of-character. Sideways never suggests that Miles is the least bit flighty; on the contrary, it shows him driving and doing a crossword simultaneously. And the filmmakers expect me to buy his faux pas?

It’s a single scene, but it’s awful, and a movie that falls back on that lazy sitcom device cannot possibly be any good.

So something that egregious, no matter how minor, begins to color everything else. I started eyeing the movie with suspicion, from the opposing conceptions of Miles and Jack to those opening and closing knocks to that speech to the fact that Payne cast his wife, Sandra Oh, as Jack’s fling. I realized that my defense of Thomas Haden Church’s performance — Jack is a bad actor and a fake, so of course he can’t sob convincingly — simply makes an excuse for a cowardly critic-proof role.

I’m essentially casting aspersions on the movie because of one flaw. But it’s a telling and important mistake, and it revealed to me the wholly crass motivations of its makers. There’s no doubt that Sideways makes for an entertaining two hours, but if this is the best Hollywood has to offer in 2004 — and it might be — it’s been a pretty sorry movie year.

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