Film

Sideways (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Always a resourceful, thoughtful performer, Virginia Madsen almost offsets Sideways' overriding, occasionally prosaic interest in the boys' journey.


Sideways

Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Fox Searchlight
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2004-10-22 (Limited release)
Amazon affiliate

Much as he tries to move forward, junior high school English teacher and unpublished novelist Miles (Paul Giamatti) is going nowhere. Still muttering over the abandonment of his ex-wife, he's angry at himself, his students' repetitively error-ridden papers, his college roommate's apparent happiness. In an effort to celebrate the upcoming nuptials of his old friend, sometime tv actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church), Miles arranges for a weeklong tour through the vineyards of Southern California's Santa Ynez Valley. Imagine his dismay when Jack sees their trip as a last chance for rollicking through the bed of every girl he meets.

Adapted from Rex Pickett's novel by Jim Taylor and director Alexander Payne, Sideways takes something of a skewed view of its road-buddy protagonists, allowing them to judge and beat up on each other emotionally, even as they profess their enduring friendship and wonder at the strangeness of women. Miles is far too uptight and imperious for Jack, who functions here as his convenient opposite, crass, self-indulgent and narcissistic. The film begins as Miles wakes late for their appointed departure, then putters through his morning routine -- showering, flossing, buying his triple espresso from a local shop where the sweet clerk knows his name and usual drink -- before getting on the road to pick up his friend. At last arriving at Jack's place ("Mr. Prompt!"), Miles takes brief note of the fiancée hovering, relegated to narrative background, as he apologizes for his tardiness and the two guys hit the road.

They're not too far along before Miles learns Jack's ambition, to "get laid" during his last week as a single man, and worse, to find a girl for him as well: "You've been depressed for two years," Jack says, "You need to get your joint worked on." Harrumphing and sputtering (Giamatti makes such spasms watchable, despite their predictability), Miles is part horrified, part intrigued, and mostly depressed. Unable to conceive of any woman who would want him, Miles fixes on Jack's carousing as a flagrant moral flaw, a confirmation that the world is irredeemable, that he stands apart, alone and miserable because of everyone else's lack of appreciation for those finer aspects of living he so studiously cultivates.

Just so, Miles' choice of the wine tour is not incidental. A self-instructed and arrogant connoisseur, he envisions an excursion into civility and snooty-class, an escape from his daily disappointments and a chance to show off his own precise knowledge. Miles prefers and identifies with the sensitive, "temperamental" pinot noir, thinking cabernet too vulgar. He also anticipates a chance to educate Jack, to bring him up into his own rarified air. Though he talks a good game, though, it soon becomes clear that Miles is using his interest in wine as a means to self-medicate; that is, he's an alcoholic, and not a pretty one either. As Jack notes during the first moments of their drive, Miles is late because he's "fucking hung over," following a tasting the night before.

Jack is equally self-deceptive, and appears to have no understanding of social boundaries or rules of engagement. "I get chicks looking at me all the time, all eyes," he asserts, "Men too." (As Church embodies Jack, this self-love seems about right, his appeal an uncomfortable mix of tense, effortless, and smarmy.) He blithely lies up and down to Miles (oh sure, he's read the latest draft of Miles' novel, then doesn't know anything about the non-revised ending) or more frequently, about himself. This even as he imagines he doesn't need to fabricate a background for himself, as his tv stardom typically precedes him (and so what if he has to jog women's memories of where they've seen him before, or not mention that he'll be married in a week?) Worse, from Miles' point of view, Jack has no compunctions when it comes to telling tales for his friend, asserting repeatedly that he has a novel about to be published (though Miles' agent is having a hard time even getting publishers to read it; it perhaps goes without saying that it is an autobiographically based piece concerning the death of his father).

Irritated he might be, but Miles finds the patience to cope with Jack's adolescent shenanigans until they come to a favorite Valley hangout, the Danish-faking Solvang Inn (as absorbing and class-defining as the vineyards appear to be, Sideways is quite aware of the pretentiousness and sheer corniness as well). Crushing on the waitress, Maya (Virginia Madsen), who brings her own knowledge of wine, Miles is mortified when Jack starts flirting with her for him. It's not long before Jack has set up a double date, including pourer Stephanie (Sandra Oh), and the guys are launched into a web of lies and performances that simultaneously scandalize and titillate Miles.

While Jack seduces Stephanie with startling ease (even in her few moments on screen, Stephanie appears leagues beyond both Miles and Jack in terms of self-understanding and generosity of spirit), Miles takes baby steps toward impressing Maya. At her home late at night (Jack and Stephanie making comically loud sex noises in the bedroom), Miles to thrilled to learn that Maya shares his affection for complexity. Thinking briefly that he's found a worthy woman, someone who might even return his interest, Miles opens up about his book, even hauls out a copy from his car for Maya to read.

She's more that up to this imposition, and you even believe she forgives Miles' previous bad, sad, drunken behaviors, because Madsen allows you to believe. Always a resourceful, thoughtful performer, Madsen almost offsets Sideways' overriding, occasionally prosaic interest in the boys' journey. While this journey ranges from melancholy to eruptive, broadly slapsticky to ho-hum quirky (much as Payne's previous films, About Schmidt [2002] and the sublime Election [1999], also did), Madsen -- low-voiced, watchful -- holds your attention. As much as Payne tends to make the same movie repeatedly, Maya is a surprise, granted more nuance than Jeannie Schmidt (Hope Davis) and less comedy than the redoubtable Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), and fully embodied by the superb Madsen.

Most reductively, Maya serves here to show Miles the way, to encourage him, in spite of himself, to be humble and open to feeling good for someone other than himself, to forgive Jack and also to move on from their competition. But she also extends beyond this "girlfriend" role in two particular, seemingly contradictory ways. For one, she exists mostly offscreen, an ideal Miles describes before you see her, and an object of longing once he mucks up their budding relationship, essentially by his selfish passivity. At the same time, however, Maya's appearances are refreshing, grounded and compassionate, intimating the other world that Miles seeks so desperately.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

With The Perfect Nothing Catalog, composer Conrad Winslow explores attention and arrangement with assistance from the Cadillac Moon Ensemble and Aaron Roche.

The album cover, in a way, tells you everything. It's simple: a cardboard box with two pieces of tape: one from the box's original packing, the other haphazardly slapped on. They imply two separate states–ordering and reordering, original state and redefined context. The Perfect Nothing Catalog, the debut recording from Alaska-born, Brooklyn-based composer Conrad Winslow, invokes this very idea of objects and ideas placed, shuffled, and replaced, provoking questions of how arrangement shapes meaning.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Film

In 'Downsizing' Shrinking Means Big Money and Bigger Problems

Matt Damon and Jason Sudeikis in Downsizing (2017) (Photo by Photo credit: Paramount Pictures - © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.) (IMDB)

Being the size of a dog's chew toy might not be to everybody's taste, but it's certainly a shortcut to a kind of upper middle-class luxury unobtainable for most of humanity.

Just imagine you're a character in Alexander Payne's circuitous and occasionally perceptive new comedy Downsizing: You were pre-med, but you dropped out of school to take care of your mother. Now you're an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks. You and your wife are treading water both economically and in your relationship. But still, you face every day with just enough gee-whiz optimism that life never quite turns into a grind. But then, something happens. Some Swedish researchers figured out a way to shrink the average human down to a mere five inches tall without any adverse side effects. There are risks to avoid, like not leaving metal fillings in during the shrinking process (exploding heads, you know).

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image