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Sideways: Sloshing Towards Bethlehem

Two weeks ago I had to write a short review of the movie Sideways for class. I wrote it neat, with a water back, about what I saw as a central problem with the story. I was a wee too shy to post it on FRL, for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint–perhaps my concern that you would think, “geeze, she’s been in this program for two semesters and counting, and her writing still hasn’t improved?”

But after reading “Is a Wine-Soaked Film Too, Er, Rosé?” in today’s Times, a discussion that fully articulates the concerns I had about Sideways (and is a fine bit of reporting), I felt emboldened to share my take on Sideways (and now wish I had posted it earlier). It’s this week’s FRL Spotlight Review.

Sloshing Towards Bethlehem

Memo to self: no more night driving in the wine country. At least that”s one message from “Sideways,” a movie with a small plot problem. Two guys go to the wine country, meet two chicks, and the story takes off from there. One guy, Miles, is an alcoholic middle-school teacher, played to his schleppy best by Paul Giamatti (“American Splendor”); the other, Jack (the underused Thomas Haden Church), is a bit-part television actor whose bachelor party trip to the verdant Santa Barbara vineyards becomes an excuse to indulge his sex addiction. But wait: didn’t I mention Miles is an alcoholic?

There is much to like about “Sideways,” adapted from a fine page-turner by Rex Pickett, including a judicious dash of retro split-frame photography and many amusing touches such as using the seedy tourist town of Solvang as the launchpad for the boozy week. There are also great performances, particularly Sandra Oh as Stephanie, a frisky wine-pourer who takes up with Jack, and Virginia Madsen as Maya, Miles ostensible objet d’amour, in a performance so luminous it redeems two decades of curiously bad roles. Church, with his mobile but handsome face and just-past-his-peak physique, comes off perfectly as the fading frat boy in search of one last fling before a marriage of convenience.

However, Miles’ alcoholism is an elephant in the living room “Sideways” refuses to acknowledge, and that damages the story. That Miles is a drunk is unambiguous. Scene after scene we are reminded of his condition by the meticulous details we come to expect from a movie by Alexander Payne: the half-drained wineglasses on the bed-stand every morning; the days that begin in the late afternoon with a shower and a first drink; that Miles is familiar as a regular at the slightly-battered restaurant he and Jack visit nearly every night; his huge capacity for alcohol and, as Ebert noted, his chronic depression; and several actions only an alcoholic could justify which cannot be repeated here but are the kind of careful and unsparing characterizations we saw in “Citizen Ruth,” “Election,” and “About Schmidt.”

It’s not that alcoholism isn’t a fitting subject for a movie; it’s that in “Sideways,” something as big as alcoholism isn’t the subject at all. Imagine “Days of Wine and Roses” straining to be a movie about a flack with a stressful job whose wife accidentally burns down his apartment, or “Lost Weekend” insisting it is a movie about a writer having a tough time meeting deadlines. Yet in “Sideways” we are expected to believe that Miles is in an advanced state of a serious disease that has no effect on the plot and has no consequences for Miles or anyone he connects with.

Consider “Leaving Las Vegas,” in which Sera (Elisabeth Shue) takes Ben (Nicolas Cage) on a short trip to a favorite resort. Sera imagines that she and Ben will be able to leave their cares behind and have a brief vacation. But Ben”s drinking travels with them, as it must, and ruins their good times, and that is crucial to the plot. In “Leaving Las Vegas,” only the characters are in denial. We hope Ben and Sera’s vacation will work, but we nod with recognition when it doesn’t. When, as in “Sideways,” the audience is supposed to be in denial as well, with an ending that strains credulity for anyone who has known a drunk, on some fundamental level the story fails, no matter how many poetic moments or knee-slapping over-the-top scenes the film pours over the audience on its long boozy trip (or how many Oscars it is predicted to win).

“Sideways” has some great scenes and performances, and I would recommend seeing it, if nothing else to catch the pre-Oscar buzz. But I tripped over that elephant in the living room, and how could I not: it was passed out stone cold.

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