A barbed valentine from a red-state filmmaker on a blue-state subject.
In the end, I laughed myself blotto at this movie, but I still have the following observation.
I live about thirty miles north of where most of Sideways was filmed, and and several of my friends were extras. (In fact, a youth-pastor friend was sitting at the bar next to Miles in one of the Hitching Post scenes—but now that the film has come out, male nudity included, she’s finding herself scrambling to stop her eleven year-old charges from going to the theater to see her performance!) Other friends who work at the art theater in town told me that after each showing of the film they find four or five empty wine bottles on the floor. People around here were tickled to have so many of their favorite places splashed up on the big screen and paid homage to by the rest of the country. So, given this local love-in for the film, why did some of these same people, especially twenty-somethings, actually recoil at the story itself?
Craig mentioned rightly that the pacing of Sideways will seem a little sluggish to younger people. True enough. But another complaint I’ve heard more than once is that the comically absured levels of selfishness and hedonism (especially in Jack’s character) don’t have consequences. A broken nose not withstanding, Jack “gets away with it” in the end, marries his dream-girl, and is never forced to face his depravity. Again, this is a specifically twenty-something complaint that I’ve heard, surprisingly, among those living in a blue state, in a college town, in Sideways country itself, and among people who love the movies in general.
Personally, I think this critique is a little wrong-headed, since, after all this film is more of a farce than a morality tale. In addition, the fact that Jack seems to re-enter life unscathed by his weekend antics actually describes reality quite well—even the book of Ecclesiastes says that, for the time being, people get away with all kinds of terrible things. And, if what’s been said about the director Alan Payne is true, the audience itself is invited to punish Jack as we laugh at him, not with him. But the critique itself does tell us something about a deep sense of moral balance even present in audiences, we are so often told, that don’t want to be preached at.
I felt that this movie is a tale about those peculiar friendships that make us better people. Jack dares his friend repeatedly to risk again. He won’t let Miles passively be miserable. And Miles’ challenges Jack to face his responsibilities (like calling his fiancee). Now, they’re not perfect. They are even admittedly kind of terrible. But they support each other.
Also, Jack may “marry his dream girl” but I thought it was implied that the marriage wouldn’t last as he is too insecure to live without the pertpetual validation of one night stands. And Miles is still a wreck at film’s end, but he’s trying, as is evident by his going to Maya again. It wasn’t a conclusive “the end” as much as an ending to this part of the story.
Furthermore, I think Payne does care for his characters while regarding them as ridiculous. Jack is a caring, though misguided man. He is also an asshole. These kind of paradoxes exist in people, and Payne’s movies always seem to show this. Miles is intellectual and foolish, and Jack is affectionate and emotionally distant. It seems a humane choice to neither villanize nor romanticize these men. They are funny but selfish, articulate but oafish, potentially loving but largely emotionally challenged.
It’s these complexities of people’s ugliness and beauty that makes the film feel so lush. Ironically, on the DVD cover, all the actors’ faces have been airbrushed to erase wrinkles....
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