Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sideways (Payne, 2004)

Sideways. Dir. Alexandre Payne. Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh. Fox Searchlight, 2004.

is the kind of movie that is, alas, in short supply in American movies - maybe in contemporary cinema, period. Its deeply, deeply, flawed protagonists are an audacious step; its dexterity allows the film to swing from drama to cringe-worthy depravity to rollicking humor; the cinematography attains moments of profound beauty; its story, so mundane, so absurd on the surface, keeps you glued to the screen even when the pace lulls. In short, Sideways is a movie that inspires.

And I don't mean "inspire" like the cookie-cutter, feel-good, hard-work-and-faith-triumph-over-all-comers sports movies that Hollywood has churned out like so many hot dogs recently. This is nothing so obvious or facile. Neither is Payne's movie instructional because its characters make so many bad decisions (and do they ever.) Rather, Sideways is inspirational because its characters are screwed up like we are: Giamatti's Miles is a failed novelist, bored with his job as a middle-school English teacher, bitter about his divorce, negative, depressed, anxious, so much Bukowskian flotsam - and he has the razor-like intelligence to realize this without the wherewithal to change his condition. Neither is Hayden Church's Jack any better: a has-been TV star, panicking about his upcoming marriage, desperate to reclaim a sense of adventure (sexual and otherwise). Where Miles floats through life in a haze of Zanex and fine wine, Jack bullies his way from bad decisions to worse without a second thought. They are incredible foils and their relationship is equally complex, moving beyond love-hate to that deep simpatico of long time association and frankly platonic love.

What is truly inspirational about Sideways is that the characters are dynamic, but not magically so. They have their epiphanies, but not the kind of Earth-shattering moments that Hollywood dishes out like so much slop. These are small moments that shift the characters along a spectrum. Jack, after spending most of the week cheating on his fiancée at every possible moment, confesses: he would be lost, he would be nothing without Christine. It is a bitter moment, a truthful moment. And we witness it without rancor or smug justification, but actually deep compassion and satisfaction. Miles finally opens his bottle of '61 Château Cheval Blanc (drinking it with fast-food and from a styrofoam cup), and we realize with almost Zen-like passivity that this really is a special occasion: a moment unlike any other in a long series of wine glasses.

Perhaps the best thing that I can say in closing is that I now fully intend to read the novel by Rex Pickett upon which Sideways is based. This is not to damn with faint praise, but another inspiration of the movie: to send me outwards, to contact other moments, other texts, other people and seek out my own beautifully mundane epiphanies.