Purple States

A barbed valentine from a red-state filmmaker on a blue-state subject.

Craig Detweiler

The median age of the audience was roughly sixty. In the near-literal wake of John Kerry’s stinging defeat, a group of well-read, well-heeled Chardonnay sippers took solace in the dark at a showing of Sideways. Perhaps a slow cinematic trip through the wine country, though cold comfort, would begin to heal their collective wounds.

Sideways opened on the coasts—in blue states only. There is a reason for this. In making a movie that follows the struggles of a frustrated writer with a refined palate, director Alexander Payne has made a movie about them, for them. In fact, considering my status as a frustrated writer with a refined palate and limited resources, Payne has made a movie for me, too.

On the other hand, why did Sideways only open in blue states? What makes its jokes so appropriate for erstwhile Kerry supporters? Surely even Republicans could enjoy a bottle of (and a punch line about) merlot. Doesn’t everybody need a warm, funny, biting look at mid-life crises? In the aftermath of the most recent battle in our national debate, couldn’t we all use a hearty laugh?

Seen this way, maybe Sideways can offer viewers on both sides of the cultural divide a moment of mutual understanding. Consider it a barbed valentine from a red-state filmmaker on a blue-state subject. And with a little luck and a healthy Oscar campaign, this stinging but humane satire of human failings may land the broad audience it deserves. Red plus blue should at least equal purple (if not Hollywood’s favorite shade of green).

Problems, problems

Of course, a few speed bumps delay the movie’s healing power and may dampen its crossover appeal. First off, Sideways is slow. The story follows two friends on a weeklong bachelor party and each day seems to unfold in real time with periods where nothing much happens. Essentially, two rather unattractive men engage in wine tasting and conversation over dinner, and by “Wednesday” teens will end up looking at their watches or cell phones or whatever gizmo kids today use to check their global positioning.

The closest Sideways comes to an action sequence takes place on a golf course, and Payne cuts away just when it starts to get interesting. Later, when sparks start to fly in a jealous, face-smashing rage, the action takes place off screen. Perhaps this is a calculated move intended to satisfy both sides of the political divide: left coast pacifists are spared the bloody violence that repelled them in The Passion of the Christ while Heartlanders moved by Mel Gibson’s portrayal of their suffering Savior but outraged by Resident Evil can also take comfort in a film essentially void of onscreen violence (other than a tree that gets hit by a car in an accident that plays to the sneaky humor of this film.)

A second problem is that Sideways is immoral. Or at least its characters are. Miles, the film’s “hero,” steals money from his mother to finance a final bachelor excursion for Jack, his college roommate. Sideways follows them on a twisted trip through California’s less-celebrated wine country, the Paso Robles Valley. The region, like Miles’s writing ability, is relatively undiscovered and undervalued.

Miles the thieving novelist is a paragon of virtue compared to the lustful groom-to-be, a washed-up actor. After a few seasons of glory on a soap opera, Jack claims to be ready for marriage. But the journey in Sideways is focused heavily on sex or attempts to have sex. Everybody but Jack seems to be divorced. Miles is still grieving over his failed marriage to Victoria. Maya and Stephanie, the two women who join their odyssey, both appear to have complicated and painful histories. Even happily married folks in this movie have issues, like the portly waitress who sleeps with Jack just to arouse her tattooed, biker husband.

Where are the role models? They’re drunk. Or at least, en route to being drunk. In fact, the whole film is an unabashed advertisement for the joy of wine. The title refers to the proper way to store wine (and preserve the moistness of the cork). But it is also serves as a euphemism for getting sloshed—“Man, I got sideways last night!” Even the most committed teetotaler will exit Sideways tempted to crush some grapes. It’s just wine, wine, whine. Dionysius would be proud.

Of course, just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, it does. Miles and Jack never seem to learn anything. They make the same mistakes over and over. One lies about why he’s late. The other lies about where he is headed. Female viewers will not appreciate their objectification of women. Even when seemingly contrite, they fail to capitalize on opportunities put before them. Miles ultimately rats out Jack. Both end up physically and emotionally humiliated. Viewers may wonder for a time why they’re watching these losers engage in such repellent behavior.

A new direction

Director Alexander Payne, a Nebraska native, seems to have a particular interest in the everyday lives of middle Americans. His career started with the story of a pregnant mother in Citizen Ruth (1996). Payne must have witnessed one too many shouting matches outside Omaha abortion clinics because neither side comes out looking too good. He followed this up with Election, a story of a frustrated high school teacher (1999). Its adult characters look pretty childish manipulating the outcome of a student council election. Mutual of Omaha must have provided some inspiration for his third feature about a retired, insurance salesman. About Schmidt (2002) makes Jack Nicholson look dull, boring, and bottled up (talk about movie magic!) and ends with an understated, emotional wallop involving a sponsored child in Africa.

One criticism in particular has dogged these savage satires: “He doesn’t like his characters.” Critics have suggested that he seems to be laughing at, rather than laughing with their plight. As a Stanford grad, maybe Alexander Payne feels slightly smarter than the middle Americans dominating his films. He is accused of looking down on the sad sacks driving his stories, of mocking them from his director’s chair. There will be fewer such accusations with Sideways.

Sympathy is easy, for audiences and filmmakers. But empathy is elusive. It takes time. Like a bottle of wine fine, it must be modulated. Opened too quickly, it can seem cartoonish and facile. Left for too long, it can turn maudlin or tasteless. Am I using wine analogies? Yes. Does this make me seem haughty or overeducated? Perhaps. Do I wish I had thought to make a movie about the delicate nurture necessary to create a pinot noir? Absolutely.

Like many Californians, I too have known the joys of a Saturday in Solvang, our own New Amsterdam. I’ve toured the back roads of Buellton, sipping the sublime flavors of Iron Horse or Zabuco Canyon. I’ve even stayed in the same dingy hotel patronized by our peripatetic characters in Sideways. Tourist bureaus are undoubtedly preparing to capitalize on the Sideways Winery tour.

What makes Sideways Alexander Payne’s most empathetic and effective film to date is that, like a bottle of fine wine, he seems to have mellowed with age, or at least taken on more complex and nuanced flavors. With Sideways, Payne finally gets out of Nebraska. The road trip for Miles and Jack starts in San Diego. They cruise up the California coast, relishing the golden hues across Paso Robles. Payne’s characters are still average and everyday. But this struggling novelist and washed-up actor are Southern California average, and that makes all the difference.

Sexual healing

Sideways is a great hope for healing in America. It offers Payne’s red-state perspective on the blue states. It shows how shallow, vain, and misguided aspiring media elites can be. It demonstrates that hedonism has a heavy cost. The wages of sin are smashed cars, broken noses, and divorce. Payne and his accomplished cinematic partners have created something comparable to a rare vintage—an art film everyone can enjoy. It even has the male nudity that brought audiences together around Fox Searchlight’s last crossover hit, The Full Monty. So, where is the love, middle America? Get thee to the Cineplex!

Sideways will win the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (it is based upon a somewhat autobiographical novel by Rex Pickett) for several reasons. One, it is the best. Two, it fulfills every (male) writer’s fantasies. A struggling writer meets a beautiful woman willing to listen to his problems and read his manuscript. Literary nirvana! Three, it is brought to life by four of the finest, most empathic performances of the year.

As Miles, Paul Giamatti expands on the thorny, complex, and compelling path he blazed in American Splendor. As Jack, Thomas Haden Church plays into stereotypes about his own career as the forgotten star of the sitcom Wings. He dares to make himself look really foolish, pitiful, and desperate. His tears earned much more than laughs in this viewer. As Stephanie, Sandra Oh is given the chance to play that rarest of onscreen commodities, an Asian woman with anger, flaws, and sex appeal. (Sleeping with the director will actually help you get such prime roles—just ask Mrs. Oh-Payne). As Maya, Virginia Madsen is nothing short of a revelation. When Miles gives a speech about the subtle nuances of pinot noir, Maya listens with a profound empathy. While the connections to Miles’s fragile emotional state are obvious, it is Maya who ultimately emerges as the film’s most complex character. You sense her deep secrets, her regrets about the past, and her gutsy willingness to risk again. Fine wine, indeed.

Why has Sideways already won rafts of kudos this awards season? It is catnip to Academy voters, the over-sixty-five set nestled into the 90210 district who dominated the audience I sat with at the Westside (of Los Angeles) Pavilion. You can call them (and maybe me) elitist and out-of-touch. But Sideways touched us all with its broken dreams and endless deceits. We’ve seen them. We’ve lived them. And whether that dream involves a civil society where kids respect their parents and answer “yes, ma’am” to their teachers, or a progressive society where anyone can marry their best friend, dreams continue to be born and die, born and die, resurrected by the flickers of hope, fanned into flame by love. :::

Craig Detweiler prefers a deep, hearty Zinfandel. He is a screenwriter and co-author of A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture.
posted by editor ::: January 19, 2005 ::: philms :::