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LaWineClub Movie Review: Sideways

Posted by perle0 on 2004-11-21 22:17:33 (6033 views)

Warning: there are some spoilers here!
Like a lot of you out there, I was really looking forward to the movie Sideways. The reviews are just embarrassingly good--almost 100% positive, often ravingly positive--and the central premise, a wine-tasting tour of California's central coast region, sounded great. The two main characters, Miles, a failing novelist, and his best friend, Jack, a fading actor, are making the trip as a last hurrah before Jack's upcoming wedding. Much of the drama arises from their conflicting goals for the trip--Jack is determined to sow as many wild oats as possible before his wedding, and vows to get his friend Miles laid while he's at it. Miles just wants to spend some quality time with his friend, drink some great wine, and eat some great food. Still smarting from his divorce two years ago, Miles is definitely depressed, and seems to get his only pleasure in life from wine.

First, the wine. As a movie about wine buffs and wine tasting, I'd give Sideways an A+. The wine discussion in the movie is knowledgeable, yet accessible to the non-buff. There are jokes that only a wine buff will find funny, such as Mile's put-down of Merlot, yet someone who misses that joke will still enjoy the movie. The wine theme extends throughout the movie, but often in subtle ways, only to be picked out later on further reflection. More overt wine themes are clarified for the non-wineloving viewer, as when Miles explains his love for Pinot Noir, which is clearly a metaphor for himself and why any woman should bother with his surly, judgemental, and not particularly attractive self. Miles is truly passionate about wine, but he drinks rather too much of it under the cover of connoisseurship--how can he be a drunk if he only drinks the finest? Yet who else downs an entire bottle of wine sitting at a bar alone?

The extensive wine lore even gives the wine-savvy viewer insight into the characters. For example, Miles reveals that the premier wine in his "collection" (he's too low on cash to have much of a real collection; he keeps this fine wine in the bottom of his closet) is a 1961 Cheval Blanc. Earlier in the movie, he has made statements about the disappointing nature of the Cabernet Franc grape, and of course made a blanket condemnation of Merlot. Guess what Cheval Blanc is made of? Yep, it's a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. (Full disclosure: I did not actually know that myself; some real wine-buff hinted at it in a wine forum, and I merely did the research to confirm it.) Miles is as hard on these grapes as he is on himself, seeing only failure where greatness is at least possible in the hands of the right vintner.

In a similar vein, I suspect that you can read any "mistakes" in the wine lore in this film as deliberate clues to character. If Miles finally drinks that Cheval Blanc out of a styrofoam cup at a burger joint, it's not just a wine connoisseur's ultimate faux-pas. It's something more. Perhaps it's a sign that the wine is just his excuse to drink, and when he needs a fix, he'll even resort to his best wine in a plastic cup. Perhaps, as I see it, he's responding to Maya's urging not to save his wine indefinitely past its prime, but to enjoy it now, while it's at its peak, even under imperfect circumstances--to enjoy what life has to offer now, instead of waiting for things to be perfect. (As most of us grown-ups know, that will be a long wait.) The important thing is, you the viewer are looking for a way to understand this action, getting engaged in the film...and when was the last time that happened?

Now, as a movie, I was less impressed than most reviewers were. I did enjoy the film overall, and would recommend that people see it rather than skip it. It held my interest throughout, I was interested in the characters, and it had some good laughs and touched my emotions. But I did feel that the movie missed a lot of its potential, like a complex wine drunk too young. The two main characters draw us in and interest us, but a lot is left unexplained. How have these two men--who, we're told, have only one semester as college roommates in common--managed to remain friends for so long? They fight constantly, they think only of themselves, Jack doesn't care much about wine, Miles doesn't play decent golf, Jack hasn't even read Miles' novel....They have nothing holding them together, yet we're supposed to believe that they're best friends? This seems like a serious flaw for a film touted as a no-holds-barred look at male friendship. Or maybe that's how male friendships work? Two guys using each other when it's convenient? I hope not.

To be fair, each one does give something to the other, even grudgingly. Miles does break down and go to great lengths to retrieve Jack's wallet. Jack does push Miles to take a risk with Maya, and pushes him to keep pursuing his writing in the face of failure, even if he can't make the effort to actually read Miles's novel. But those are some pretty thin threads to hold two men together for 20-plus years.

To a large extent, the movie focuses on Miles. Sure, there's the question of whether Jack is a total heel or just a weakling who really loves his fiancée and just doesn't understand how to be faithful. Somehow, I doubt that Christine would care about the answer any more than Stephanie does. No, the real puzzle is Miles. He's not a bad guy, but then again, he doesn't really put a whole lot of effort into being a good guy, either. We think, based at least on Maya's testimony as the only other person who's actually read his work, that he's actually a decent writer. He just manages to write novels that can't be sold. You know his book deal is in trouble when even he has to describe his novel with "it's really hard to summarize." Have you ever bought a novel with that on the back flap? His marriage ended two years ago, but he still imagines that he'll get back together with his ex, even though they barely speak anymore. Plus, we find out that he was the one who cheated on her to begin with--supposedly because she had a way of "making him feel small," but last time I checked, most wives don't find that excuse very convincing.

Miles is passive to the extreme. He waits patiently for word from his agent about his book deal. He only gets to know Maya because Jack refuses to stop pushing them together. In fact, he doesn't even want to date Maya because she's "just a waitress," and only begins to be interested in her when he finds out she's studying horticulture on the side. (Great, so he's not only passive, but also a snob.) He's even late getting started on his wine trip, the one thing he seems to care about, but not enough to show up for it on time. Is it a sign that he's able to change at the end, when he takes it on himself to drive up to see Maya? Or was he only able to make that move after getting her tacit permission via the phone call? I'd like to interpret it as the former...that he's finally able to make one move, however small, on his own. She didn't tell him to drive up and visit, only to stop by and say hello if he was in the neighborhood. But you could easily read it the other way.

The reviews laud this movie as a realistic, un-prettified picture of real male friendships. I'd agree that it's not pretty, but I’m not so sure this is a real friendship. There's realism aplenty in the movie, but it didn't seem to investigate friendship so much as paint a realistically disfunctional one. Maybe its point was that real friendships are this tenuous and real people's lives this hopeless, but that doesn't sound like a point that would have reviewers talking Oscar.

In my view, the real test of a movie is whether or not you find yourself thinking and talking about it afterwards (in more depth than "boy, how many ways did that suck"). Sideways certainly passed that test. Yet when half of what you're talking and thinking about is whether the movie hit its goal, and what its point really was anyway, that's not exactly cause for celebration. Sideways seems to me a movie with a lot of interesting things going on, well worth seeing, yet ultimately less than it might have been with a clearer message or characters who definitely learned something. It's a delicious glass of wine, but is truly a 100-pointer?


NPR interview with Rex Pickett
Posted by Mike Perry on 2004-12-02 20:43:56
NPR has an interview with the writer of the movie.

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