Sideways About Sideways
I have been somewhat surprised about some of the critical soul searching going on about the movie Sideways (See Slate
). Much of the wavering about the film seems to be focused around the concerns that (1) the film is over praised; (2) due in part to the close identification between film critics and Miles, Sideway’s middle-aged, hypercritical, and frustrated protagonist; and (3) that the story is, in turns, either vague, undistinguished, critical of “everyday” Americans, or male wish fulfillment.
It is a good movie, but not a great one. It’s chief virtues are its excellent use of the language of wine appreciation to explore the characters, the fine acting ensemble, and strong direction. The movie does not aspire to greatness, but it excels at everything that it does. In part, it stands out amongst what is otherwise an undistinguished year of pretentious flops (Troy, Alexander), near misses (Kinsey), and where the other memorable films all have unique strengths (Ray, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Incredibles).
While it is easy to see why many critics would identify with the character of Miles, myself included, that identification, in large part, is due to how well the film and the actor Paul Giamatti portray the character with all of his faults, foibles, and frustrations and make many in the audience empathize with him. This criticism attempts to turn one of the film’s strengths into a weakness. Miles is not a perfect character, but he knows that and the film shows him struggling to overcome his faults.
As for the story, much of the criticism seems to argue that Miles and his friend Jack really aren’t likable characters. Both certainly are flawed characters, and both are shown struggling with their flaws. Plus, as Miles notes in contrast to the lies told by his womanizing friend, “I’m not Jack.” The other part of this is that many do not understand why Maya is attracted to Miles. This may either be the result of the film not exploring more the basis of their relationship or that the audience not getting the context of their relationship. Because Maya’s attraction to Miles is formed before the movie begins, some in the audience may not fully comprehend the basis for their relationship. When Miles introduces Maya to Jack, he explains that they have known each other from some time, due to his frequent trips. Jack immediately recognizes that Maya is interested in Miles. Later, they learn that Maya, like Miles, is recently divorced. So, here we have two middle-aged adults, recently out of failed marriages, attempting to find their way in life. Why is it such a mystery why they would be attracted to each other? Granted, Miles is a pill and not a prize catch. But, they have a shared love of wine, and Maya is interested in Miles’ writing. I could be identifying too closely with Miles, but I don’t think so.
The comments about the film’s condescension to Middle Americans are the most tenuous. These comments mostly focus on the portrayal of the waitress Jack sleeps with and of the senior citizens on the packaged wine tours. Some also bring up scenes from the director Alexander Payne’s previous film About Schmidt. These comments are overblown at best and, at worst, are the defensive concerns of thin-skinned folks from the Red Counties. What is interesting about the scenes with the waitress is how they go from predictable seduction of the innocent to the psychologically complex gamesmanship of the waitress and her tow-truck driving husband. Yes, they live in squalor, but in part that enhances the otherworldliness of Miles’ interactions with them. And, just how is it that they are supposed to be more representative of Red County America? After all, Santa Barbara County did vote for Kerry
over Bush by 10 percent. Is it because of their jobs? Miles is a teacher, Jack is an actor who will soon be working in his immigrant father-in-law’s business, Maya is working as a waitress while pursuing another degree, and Stephanie is a single mom working in a vineyard tasting room. How is it that they do not represent average Americans? Is it because they have college degrees? Since the majority of adults today have spent, at least, some time in college, I think, or certainly hope, that we are beyond that. As for the people on the bus tours of the vineyards, they are presented, part and parcel, along with the vineyard in contrast to everything else that has been said and shown about wine in the movie, and they are emblematic both of Miles’ struggle against mediocrity and of his alienation. In a movie that celebrates wine, I find it difficult to attach a political animus to scenes critical of mass produced wines. The comments raised regarding About Schmidt appear to extrapolate criticisms of Jack Nicholson’s character, which the movie focuses on, to Omaha and Middle America as a whole. As in Election, Payne’s earlier movie also set in Omaha, the focus is on the characters far more than their setting. The focus is on the dramas, concerns, and weaknesses within the lives of these everyday Americans - an insurance company executive, a school teacher, and an ambitious student - rather than a criticism of their surroundings and average American lifestyles. These movies are not Harold & Maude.