Sideways (2004), Alexander Payne

A road movie through the vineyards of California, Alexander Payne’s 2004 Sideways, focus on two disappointed middle-aged men, who find solace for their frustration and anxiety in alcohol and sex, before they exorcise their demons and finally find their inner peace.

sideways-2Who needs sympathetic characters when we have Miles, a flawed, insecure and egotistical man? Who needs heroic behaviour when we have the privilege of observing Miles stealing money from his own mother? If you, instead, insist on having a traditional leading man with noble intentions look no further than Jack, an actor who has peaked more than a decade ago. If you’re looking for idealism, Sideways will disappoint; for it can only offer the most caustic and painful, down to earth, real life.

Middle-aged friends Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) and Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church) embark on a one-week wine-tasting trip of the Santa Barbara County (California), before Jack ties the knot. Along the way, they meet two beautiful women, Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who in contrasting ways challenge their assumptions and prejudices. Jack hooks up with Stephanie, hides from her his impending wedding and eventually starts to question his commitment to his fiancée Christine. Miles reluctantly falls for Maya after a series of awkward incidents. Then things go sour when Stephanie finds out about Jack’s wedding. At the end, Jack marries his fiancée and Miles is more depressed than ever.

There are two essential scenes that partially reveal the characters of these two friends. On the day of the trip, after Miles has overslept, he calls Jack to let him know he is on his way, when, in fact, he will take another two hours to reach the motorway that links San Diego to Los Angeles. At this point in his life, people might wait for him and he doesn’t care. He really can’t be bothered to play the nice guy. At the other end, with the week’s gone, Stephanie finds out about Jack’s wedding and beats him senseless. Then he simply forgets his plan of leaving his fiancée and moving to the wine country, rationalises his comfortable circumstances and carries on as before. Old Jack can’t stand the idea of spending the rest of his life alone.

.Why are you so into Pinot?

Miles and Jack seem like a pair of teenagers in attitude and circumstances. Miles’ tantrum about the quality of Merlot and his incident of drinking and dialling are typical adolescent scenarios. Jack does not disappoint either. His turbo-charged libido offers him no break. He is constantly on the hunt for the sex experience which will supposedly assuage his angst. This man-child scenario is almost painful to watch as they are also at the receiving end of disappointment as well as creators of distress. I was left with the impression that Miles was a good writer and husband, who has been unable to showcase his good qualities. Like Jack, he made bad choices in life which are now holding him back.

However, these scenes do not paint their full picture; just an important fragment of their personalities. Beyond being insecure, cynical and self-centred, Miles also shows doses of loyalty and sensibility. He is a good-hearted, decent guy, who just happened to come out hurt from a divorce and is having a disastrous moment in his attempt at being a writer. His friend Jack, once a recognisable face, though having problems adopting a responsible attitude, is not totally blind towards reality. He might be susceptible to female attention but in his own ways is ready to take over his future father-in-law’s business. These guys are still growing and maturing. They are nearly there…

cropped-sideways.jpg   sideways-3

It is true, these guys are lost… but so are many of us. Gone are the days when a man married young, worked, had children and then died anonymously as he lived. These days we are encouraged to find a vocation, pursue our dream, seize the day! And when most of us, just like Miles and Jack, come crashing down, with bruised faces and purple limbs, people look at us (exactly as viewers look at these guys!) with a mixture of pity and disgust. First, they say ‘If you don’t try, you’ll never know’ then they feel the urge to mock our incompetence, lack of talent or plain stupidity.

Miles and Jack – these epitomes of the modern age – are emasculated men, forced by social norms to accept their own insignificant existence. And what is sad about this is that their existences are not intrinsically unimportant or trivial, neither to themselves or those around them. The problem is not with them, but with the society they live in. Because they’ve taken up creative professions and have not reached expected levels of success, they are seen as failures, when in fact they should be admired for their bravery; for trying hard. As Maya says to Miles in a telephone message about his novel, ‘who cares that’s not getting published; there are so many beautiful and painful things about it.’

These two imperfect guys are what make Sideways a deeply satisfying film. This is a truly multi-layered and multi-sided, American masterpiece.

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