Saturday, February 21, 2009

Old Friends, Sudden Death, a Comedy Called Sideways

By Steve Evans

“In search of wine. In search of women. In search of themselves.” ~ From the promo poster.

On the eve of the Academy Awards, I want to revisit a sharp comedy that won the Best Adapted Screenplay in 2004. In the world of woulda, coulda, shoulda, oughta, Sideways also deserved Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Actor, at minimum.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about Sideways for several days, the need to see it again. Soon. I embrace and cherish this remarkably insightful film about friendship and faltering dreams.

These thoughts come at the end of a challenging week – marked by the sudden death of an old friend who, I am told, finished his life with regrets and unfinished work.

Characters in Sideways remind me of characters from my college years, especially the guy who died this week. He worked with me at the student newspaper with a dozen other fiercely creative people. I realized a few days ago that working at the college paper was the last sustained period of true happiness in my life until I met my wife Claudia. Now those days of hellraising at The Commonwealth Times in Richmond, Virginia, are no more than a receding chapter in my mind’s eye, filled with memories that time has burnished to a fine luster.

Nostalgia is a tricky mind game, because it prompts us to confront the past in a hazy autumnal glow. Old photos probably offer a greater truth than the distortions of memory weighted down by time. But we still desire to remember the seminal events of our lives with fondness, replaying our adventures and perhaps embellishing their significance so as to make them all the more special. Maybe this is a defense mechanism against an unknowable future. Perhaps we relive the past with a smile because our dreams are still alive in all our yesterdays, when the canvas held only a little paint and the picture had not yet formed.

I can no longer hear about the hopes and dreams and plans and schemes of a dead writer who once told me he wanted to set the world on fire, but in the end merely warmed it, instead. So it will at least be comforting to revisit Sideways, this little miracle of the cinema, and take pleasure in the gentle insights the film offers about maturity, friendship and life's passages. It beats dwelling on long-gone days, yes, and it stops my minding from wandering.

And so as I sit here in the predawn hours of a cold February morning, thinking about a dead friend and listening to Cavalleria Rusticana, I try to keep my mind focused on the present. Someone who influenced my life is gone. That song is over. And so, there is acceptance; what else can there be? I look back on the past, anyway. Can’t help it. I think of faces I knew, faces now weathered and etched with life, people whose paths diverged decades ago, but who briefly shared a common vision and a friendship unfettered by personal agendas. I smile at the innocence of youth and the heartwarming belief in dreams.

That sweet sentiment softens a harsh reminder of the fleeting hours ahead.

Tonight I’ll take another look at Sideways, the deceptively simple story of two longtime friends from college who stave off middle-age angst with a road trip through California wine country, hunting women the week before one of them is to marry.

A bit of plot…
Miles (Paul Giamatti, American Splendor), a teacher, failed novelist, and functional alcoholic, plans a week-long tour of California's Santa Ynez vineyards for best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church, best known for his work on the TV sitcom Wings). Jack is a has-been actor doing voice-over work in commercials, though he still dreams of the next big gig. The road trip will be their last hurrah before Jack's wedding to a gorgeous socialite, with Miles standing as best man. But for now, Miles will be Jack's babysitter as they drink themselves sideways on good wine and chase skirts.

Before they reach their destination, the duo pays a spontaneous visit to Miles's eccentric mother. Miles wants to wish his mom a happy birthday en route to his week of wine, so he springs for a cheap bouquet of flowers, then invites himself and Jack to dinner. That night his real motive for visiting mom is revealed. He steals $1,000 from her for the trip. Miles is also an unabashed wine snob with a particular lust for the delicate grapes that produce Pinot Noir. He uses the vocabulary of viniculture to obscure the fact that he's a chronically depressed alcoholic unable to get over his divorce two years ago — or his ex-wife's second marriage.

Jack, on the other hand, doesn't have a care in this world. Unencumbered by deep thought or personal scruples, Jack doesn't know jack about wine, but he's willing to guzzle a bottle or three with his pal. Mostly he wants to get laid right before his wedding, and this hound-dog obsession hangs like a cloud over their week of male bonding. Miles just wants to play golf in the afternoons and drink wine all night. Jack hits on every cocktail waitress they encounter.

Miles is smitten with Maya (the delectable Virginia Madsen), a wine-obsessed waitress at his favorite restaurant, but he's too shy to chat her up. That's no problem for Jack, who picks up Maya's friend Stephanie (a scorching Sandra Oh) and suggests a double date for dinner and drinks. Soon Jack and Stephanie are moaning in a back room, but he omits the crucial information about his imminent marriage. Instead, the horny scoundrel tells Stephanie he loves her.

Miles moves cautiously with women. Battered by failed relationships, he and Maya circle warily. When he describes to her the delicate nature of Pinot Noir, he's really talking in eloquent terms about his own bruised psyche. Maya picks up on this subtle clue (her own divorce has rendered her much wiser than Miles) and draws a casual analogy between people and good wine. The best, she says, will evolve and mature, developing rich characteristics and complexity over time. And when their time comes, they taste "so f**king good," she declares, looking Miles in the eye.

Before the week is over this quartet will confront ugly truths, collide with one of the more freakish situations in modern cinema, and learn life lessons that only profound embarrassment can provide.

Context
Easily the most insightful comedy about the sexes since Woody Allen wrote and directed Annie Hall, director Alexander Payne’s Sideways was also the finest film for intelligent adults released in the lean year that was 2004. Along with Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Payne (who also co-wrote and directed About Schmidt and Election), is one of the sharpest screenwriters working today. His Oscar-winning screenplay surpasses every expectation, with fully realized characters struggling with real problems, especially their own personal flaws. Adapted by Payne and Jim Taylor from Rex Pickett’s 1999 novel, Sideways builds the foundation for a buddy flick, then transforms slyly into a bittersweet meditation on boys who have yet to make peace with the fact they are middle-aged men. And, gulp, it's hilarious.

There are set-ups in this picture that pay off in outrageously satisfying ways. Any movie that serves grilled ostrich to one character and later causes another to be chased, naked, through a field of the big birds has got the right ideas. “Those f**kers are mean,” Jack declares, demanding painkillers, tea and sympathy for his self-imposed problems. It's one of many hilarious moments in a wickedly funny film that veers effortlessly from comedy to pathos, from melancholy to guarded optimism.

Here is a picture that uses dialogue to inform and reveal interesting people. Characters arrive at the end of amazing sentences that ring so true, are so precise, that other films come off as hopelessly irrelevant, formulaic fluff. What a bracing change this is from the crop of contemporary movie scripts that force actors to mouth unbelievable phrases just to propel the plot. Characters are also illuminated by their actions as well as their words: When Miles raids his mother’s cash stash while she sleeps on the couch, the theft is a potent violation that speaks volumes about his character.

The title, Sideways, refers to the proper method of storing wine — to keep the corks wet and prevent shrinkage. This is also the principal preoccupation of the male protagonists. Incredibly, Giamatti and Haden Church pull off the near-impossible trick of making their characters sympathetic, even lovable. Madsen (The Rainmaker) and Oh (TV's Grey's Anatomy), are fiercely intelligent and oh-so gorgeous. They hold their own as women who’ve been waiting to exhale for a long time. Having been knocked around by love, they are fully capable of punching back, either literally or with a scathing retort. Here is ensemble acting on a razor's edge.

What’s on the disc, Cteve?
I’ll tell ya: Generous DVD extras include a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, a trailer, and an amusing blooper reel. The hugely entertaining commentary track by Giamatti and Haden Church is almost as funny as the film. These guys know this project was a breakthrough for their careers, and they talk happily about how much fun they had making the picture. Giamatti even acknowledges his golf game sucks so bad that a crucial tee shot was actually performed by novelist Pickett.

The 5.1 audio is crisp as cold chardonnay. Video is warm and soft, with images cast in an autumnal glow that underscores the theme of clueless men in their middle years, wandering wine country.

I have no negative criticism of the film; I wish only that it had run longer. I could have listened for days to these characters carry on, pontificate about wine, and dream their impossible dreams.

Coda
Payne and his marvelous cast deliver a superb entertainment — intelligent, provocative, heartfelt, and funny as hell. No more observant a comedy about male-female relationships has been released in the last 30 years, which is as much a wistful observation as it is cause for celebration. Like a perfect Pinot Noir, Sideways hits the spot.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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