I haven’t felt this out of the loop since people were falling all over themselves about Lost in Translation. With apologies to Andrew Sarris, Richard Corliss and all the other critics who are joined in a chorus of unstinting praise of this film, Sideways fell far short of blowing me away. It’s not that I dislike this latest offering from Alexander Payne. It just doesn’t strike me as deserving of such accolades.
I applaud Payne for tackling the subjects he has taken on, and I have nothing but admiration for anyone who would dare to make movies with a target audience in the 40-plus range. Payne and his frequent co-screenwriter Jim Taylor have crafted a screenplay that is often witty, sometimes painful, and almost always shot through with strong doses of truth — some of it damned uncomfortable. In other words, it’s not too far removed from their screenplay for About Schmidt.
For anyone in the 40 and upwards age-range, there’s much here that rings true. Anyone who’s ever settled for making a living instead of pursuing a dream, only to wake up and find that there’s still not much to show for having made the more cautious choice, will find a reflection here. Anyone who’s ever longed for more out of life and felt it slipping further and further away will see a bit of him or herself.
This is a film about lying to ourselves and watching those lies unravel. Miles (Paul Giamatti, in a stunning performance) wants to be a novelist, but the truth is he’s an eighth-grade teacher. He wants his ex-wife (Jessica Hecht, The Forgotten) back and denies the improbability of this happening. He claims to want to stop by and see his mother (Marylouise Burke, Series 7: The Contenders) because it’s her birthday, but his real motive is more self-serving. He has a serious drinking problem, but excuses it as a byproduct of his status as an enophile. When his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church, George of the Jungle) rightly deduces that Miles is hung-over, Miles notes, “There was a tasting last night.”
It’s even questionable what his real reason is for taking Jack on an extended, bachelor-party trek through California’s wine country. For that matter, there’s some doubt as to the subtext of his relationship with Jack, especially when Jack is adamant that each both have his own sexual encounters during the outing so they can share the experience.
In addition to such compelling questions, Sideways features two of the best women’s roles (played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh) to crop up this year.
So what kept the movie from ringing the gong for me? It’s partly the simple fact that I found the character of Jack — a failed actor coasting on one tenuous success in the distant past — to be utterly loathsome and unoriginal. It’s a character that has already seen service in Denys Arcand’s Love and Human Remains and is pretty much interchangeable with the one-hit-wonder pop-star in Bridget Jones’s Diary. What’s more, it’s hard to really buy the friendship between these two dissimilar men.
There’s also a bit of that indie-film faux hipness here — right down to a soundtrack of undistinguished jazz tunes that seems to exist only to prove that the filmmaker is a cultured fellow indeed. And when all is said and done, the movie is just a deeper variant of any number of buddy/road pictures that become journeys into the self.
And there’s a genuine sense of Payne repeating himself with the film. Is there that much difference between Schmidt’s journey of self-discovery in About Schmidt and the one here? Isn’t the ending — with a message on an answering machine — essentially the same as the ending with the letter in Schmidt?
While admiring the content and the intent of the movie, I could never quite get past the feeling that it was all built on an insubstantial foundation. Oh, there’s fine stuff in Sideways, but I’m not sold on its actual greatness. Rated R for language, some strong sexual content and nudity.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke