January 7, 2005

Getting Sideways on "Sideways" -- Less Here Than Meets the Critical Eye

Schlub, nebbish, or heart throb?

Having been under house arrest via a nasty cold, I've had some time to think about "Sideways," the 'serious' movie that is being pushed on America from a distressingly increasing number of movie screens. My problem is that the more I think about "Sideways" the more I discover how little there is in it to think about.

Not that we'd stop others from praising this movie. In fact, our own film critic, Jeremiah Lewis is already proclaiming it a sure thing for the best picture Oscar: ".... this year it's Alexander Payne with Sideways, there's no doubt in my mind." Sigh.

Having seen "Sideways," I agree that he may well prove to be depressingly right. After all, the last time we've seen critical opinion as united on a film was "Gigli." And we all know how that turned out.

The only thing our critics like more than a universal bomb with big

stars who've been in a liplock during "the making of," is a film that seems deep but comes up shallow. It doesn't hurt when the subject of the film and the look of the leading man seem to echo the lives and looks of the critics themselves. Scratch an Ebert, find a Miles Raymond. Every time. Plus, he sort of... maybe... gets the girl at the end. True, it is a girl -- say rather, a woman -- who shoudn't have a smidgen of attraction to of Miles' nebbishy character, but the film badly wants you to believe that even wino authors of massively tedious modern novels can find love among the functionally illiterate.

Taken as a whole "Sideways" is a film that hooks up 1) a schlub with a hot, smart woman, 2) an publishable novel with no compromises, and 3) lots of blather about vintage California Reds -- it's a critic's trifecta for sure. Look for the sequel, "Being Miles Raymond" to pack pre-screening rooms from Manhattan to Manhattan.

But critical miasma alone does not account for this teensy and depressing film's ever-expanding success. There has to be something else going on. And that something else is that "Sideways" has hit its target demographic in the forehead with a ball-peen hammer. That demographic? Probably best described as 'mid-level liberal university professors and their friends and family nationwide.' And while this group cannot elect a President, it can make a cinema dog stand up and dance.

A couple of month's ago I was having a conversation with an old friend who has a close affiliation with the New York Times as to "Whither the national New York Times?" It's clear that the Times wants to be our national newspaper, I observed, but how does that square against USA Today. He replied that the Times does not want to be the newspaper of the USA Today crowd, but the national newspaper "....of the university and college professors, and there are tons of those everywhere."

In the same way, Sideways seeks to be the "film of the year" for the Pro-Am media/liberal arts crowd . ( It would have been Fahrenheit 911, but that... ah... didn't quite work out. ) This squirming little film has everything this crowd responds to Pavlov's dog to a carillon concert.

First of all, it has depression handled by pills instead of an honest personal inventory. "Gimme a Prozac, Vicodin, and Viagra with a Pinot Noir chaser and stand back. I don't know how big this thing gets and I don't care! Stick you nose in it. Just stick it way in!"

Second, it has wine snobbery raised to the Nth degree with the always second-rate California reds elevated to Olympian stature on reeking mountains of wine-blather. (The liberal doses of irony backgrounding Mile's little screeds are in there for the cognoscenti. Can't please the "intellectuals" without irony. Copy, get me rewrite.) This includes, at no extra cost, the aging American intellectual's favorite at-home vacation, the Napa Wine Tour.

Third, and not without intent, "Sideways" has oodles of diversity sprinkled in everywhere from the sharp Sandra Oh to the vague echo of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" -- another liberal indie favorite with a lot more going for it. Comedy, uplift and pacing for starters.

Fourth, it has the theme of the "brilliant but flawed novelist who can see the truth" stuck forever in a teaching career that is somehow beneath him.

Fifth, "Sideways" showcases the "brilliant but flawed novelist who can see the truth" having his work forever rejected by a Philistine publishing world that just-can't-stand-real-genius. This comes complete with the grating agent's brush-off via telephone.

Sixth, it has a couple of soupcons of hot sex shown in a gritty way for a bit of stealth arousal. DVDs will be sold in University bookstores just so the slo-mo and freeze fame features can be used.

Finally, it has middle-age, bad posture, khaki and denim getting a second (third ) chance at a hottie, with a refuge in which to grind out another unreadable novel. Kick me, but I was praying for the final knock on the door to linger for just enough seconds for it to be answered by Sandra Oh in foundation garments with a jar of liquid laytex fresh from the microwave.

In short, "Sideways" is a lot of liberal arts professors' and graduates' secret dream lives made into a movie. No surprise it is opening ever wider in University and college towns everywhere.

"Sideways" is tailor-made for intense conversations at Faculty clubs and graduate-student mixers everywhere just as these institutions are revving up for another bleak semester in a land that has rejected them. It's another in Payne's chain of "realistic" modern movies about the nagging existential distress of modern day America. What? You've forgotten that the primary mood of Americans is supposed to be despair and desperation? Payne will remind you.

Will "Sideways" make "best picture?" Probably. More than any other film in recent release it mirrors the left's and the liberal's and Hollywood's current clinical depression. That should be more than enough for this year.

[For a completely different but persuasive view of this film, see Fringe: Sideways ]

Posted by Vanderleun at January 7, 2005 2:48 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

nice writing in your review, but I don't think the movie glorifies Miles in the least. . . it was brutally honest in its depiction of his "sideway" life, and the closing sequence doesn't show the girl jumping into his arms. . . the snobbery, self-indulgence, solipsism, and even petty thievery (from his Mom's drawer!) are enough to say to the viewer that Miles, as well as Jack, aren't noble "everymen" but just characters representing different ends of the spectrum. . . my simple take. . .

Posted by: Spear Shaker at January 7, 2005 3:52 PM

Sounds like it would make a great double feature with...a root canal.

If Alberto Gonzales were to show this movie to our detainee guests at Guantanamo, would the IRC accuse him of torture?

Posted by: slimedog at January 7, 2005 5:40 PM

Given my review, I naturally disagree with your assessment. For one, I don't match the movie's supposed demographic in the least (24, conservative, Christian, etc), though I do sport an English degree and an unabashed, though uneducated, love of wine. Hardly a Napa Valley elite.

However, I think your opinion is slightly off-kilter in that you accuse the film of shallowness, yet you don't explain why (accusing it of being a shill piece for the liberal elite is hardly an explanation of its failings).

Finally, I think you've simply misinterpreted the film's purpose and its characters. Miles is hardly a glorifiable figure, nor is Jack a model figure. Madsen's Maya is sympathetic toward Miles partially because she herself is (whilst hot and smart and all that) slightly frumpy and is on similar footing, age-wise, as Giamatti's Miles. His novel is never proclaimed to be the paragon of truth-with-a-capital-T unrecognized, though she does praise its veracity as a character-driven drama.

I also think your accusation of overt diversity is simply mistaken. Sandra Oh is married to Payne. She got the job. Seems simple to me.

However, I'd certainly not want to go up against you in a verbal fight. You've got some pretty good zingers in there, though I disagree with most of what you say. It's an interesting, if flawed look at what I still perceive to be an excellent piece of cinema.

Posted by: Jeremiah at January 8, 2005 4:45 PM