Wednesday, April 13, 2005

DB Film Squad: Sideways - DVD Review

I just loved Sideways. If you consider yourself intelligent, if you love what movies can do to you – where they can take you, how they can make you feel, the times and places and people they can recall in yourself – you need to see this film.

If you haven’t seen Sideways, there aren’t a whole lot of spoilers I can throw out there that will ruin it for you; it’s just not that type of movie: no explosions, no revelations that that dude is really a chick or anything like that. It’s just an expertly written, directed, and acted movie about friendships, relationships, and lives. And of course, it’s about wine: lots and lots of wine in Sideways.

It’s a perfect blend of comedy and drama, which is the kind of story that I find really stays with me the longest – particularly dramas where the comedy derives straight from the story and the characters, and not from gags. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed dark productions, such as shows like The Sopranos or films like Goodfellas, which also bring some of the loudest laughs.

I’m going to take an unusual route though with this movie and compare it to 1996’s Swingers, a comedy that had strong elements of drama in it. The strong connection between the two films is the relationship between two old friends, men in both cases, and its evolution over the years, and really how men relate to one another and to the world. The drama and comedy in both films is built upon this foundation, and it’s just magic to watch.

In Swingers¸ we have Jon Favreau as Mikey in the lead role and Vince Vaughn as Trent. Mikey is getting over a bad relationship and really struggling to get his life together as an aspiring actor in LA. We don’t even really know what Trent does, but he’s really good at lying his way into girl’s pants with talk of being a director or actor or racecar driver, so it almost doesn’t matter. What matters is the dynamic between Mikey and Trent. Mikey’s an everyman: he’s uncomfortable in new situations, has trouble talking to girls, and in fact seems to screw up every golden opportunity he gets. Anyone who has seen this movie will never forget the painful, excruciating agony of Mikey leaving message after message for Nikki, a girl he met at a bar that very night.

And, of course, Swingers brought home great line after great line that stay with you for years:

“You’re money baby, and you don’t even know it.”

That one’s kind of a cliché by now.

“This place is dead anyway.”
“Business class.”

There are lots of them.

Sideways brings many of these qualities, except with characters who are perhaps ten to fifteen years older. We have Miles as the everyman in this case, played supremely well by Paul Giamatti. He’s two years divorced but still pining for his ex-wife, he’s got anxiety and depression brewing just under the surface at all times, and he drinks far too much wine. He’s also an expert on wines, an aspiring and perhaps failing novelist, and an eighth-grade English teacher.

Then we have Thomas Hayden Church as Jack, again the character who could give a damn about the ramifications of his actions, who thinks the world exists to send women his way, and really acts like an older version of Trent, who might have hit it big in acting for a few years, but has now settled back upon lying his way into girl’s pants.

Both Giamatti and Church turn in powerhouse performances, alongside Virginia Madsen – who was really glorious in this film – and Sandra Oh, the female leads in the film.

The story centers upon the buddy relationship between Miles and Jack, and the road adventure they find themselves on in the Southern California wine country. I realized that this sort of tale – when told right – has always been the most captivating for me. From the time I was a teenager, I tore through Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and was fascinated by everyman Sal Paradise (who I later learned was a close approximation of the author himself) and Dean Moriarty, who was based on real-life figure Neal Cassady.

I saw myself as Paradise, and as Mikey later on in Swingers: the guy struggling to figure it out, how to get girls, how to get through life not like a bumbling fool.

And it’s the same with Miles. He’s the guy none of us want to become: really smart, really talented, but with the Big Picture priorities ass-backwards.

The premise of the story is that Miles is going to take his old friend Jack out on the road for a week wine tasting at various vineyards and golf under the sun as a kind of Gentleman’s Bachelor Party to send the late thirty’s or early forties Jack off into sublime married life.

Of course, it doesn’t turn out that way. Jack ends up on a sort of dark sexual journey, getting involved with Stephanie at some point, who is wonderfully portrayed by Sandra Oh. More importantly, perhaps, is that Miles is forced to confront all of his demons: his loneliness, the possibility of failure, and most of all his attachment to his ex-wife. It all comes to a head with his relationship with Maya, played with Oscar-caliber acting by Virginia Madsen.

Every time Madsen/Maya shows up on screen, I wanted to stand up and scream at Miles: Dude, if you don’t go for her, I’m going to throw my TV out the window!

The magic of the film is in the performances and the absolutely stunning direction by Alexander Payne. Payne just keeps getting better and better. I loved Election, was knocked on my bottom by About Schmidt with perhaps Jack Nicholson’s finest performance in the last 15 or so years (better than As Good As It Gets) but Sideways is better. Much better.

It’s all in the subtlety. As I took notes while watching Sideways, I kept using the word subtle: the way the film is shot, like a soft 70s afternoon in a California vineyard, in the way the story is allowed to slowly evolve at its own easy pace, the way the actors are, to borrow a musical term, laid back in the cut. And there’s a great, relaxed yet upbeat soundtrack throughout that keeps things moving.

I’m insanely tempted to say that this movie is like a fine wine – because it bloody well is – but I can’t because it’s too obvious. Well there, I said it without saying it. But the way the story is told demands an intelligent audience, a kind of thoughtful and patient audience. But that attention is really paid off one-hundred fold.

There’s startling moments of honesty in this movie, which is funny, because in the commentary track Paul Giamatti keeps relating that the film is about the way we all lie to ourselves and to others. The commentary’s a ball by the way, with Giamatti and Church rapping like old chums, and you can really see how that chemistry translated to the film.

I’ll finish by rolling off some of Jack’s best lines. I’m tempted to say that Church gave the best performance of all – they’re all certainly up there. But when he delivers a deadpan line, it’s so out of left field and so funny – exactly the way the best comedy derives naturally from the truth and pain of drama.

When Jack says the following line to Miles after Miles painfully and awkwardly begs off from pursuing things with Maya to go to the hotel and go to sleep, the relation to Swingers broke through my mind like a flood light.

Jack says, “This girl is looking to party and you tell her we’re going back to the motel to crash. Jesus Miles!”

Another great line, in the midst of Jack berating Miles, is when he refers to his “depression and neg-head downer shit.”

Throughout, Jack has a wonderful way of needling Miles, and Miles has a wonderful way of bristling with anxiety.

I’ll end with two of the best lines of the film, both from Jack and both leading up to a big outing with the ladies.

The first: “Just try and be your normal humorous self, okay? The guy you were before the tailspin.”

And: “Don’t drink too much. I don’t want you passing out or going to the dark side.”

The very best line: honest and painful and gut-ripping, is near the end of the film, from Miles this time, to the mirror. I’ll save that for anyone who hasn’t yet seen the film yet.

If only all of us could be so original or apt in real life. But that’s the wonder and magic of great films.

And that’s Sideways. I loved this film. It’s out-of-the-park territory – one of the best films I’ve seen in the last 10 years, and perhaps ever.

DB Note: This review was featured on Dumpster Bust Radio #3.


Greg Smyth said...

Really enjoyed the film and totally agree with your comparing it to Swingers. Sideways really is just Swingers for the over-forties. You've got the slightly pathetic previously jilted character and his slightly obnoxious but heart in the right place best mate. The films also end similarly in that there's a certain comeuppance for the cocky guy and the supposed loser gets the (new) girl.

Eric Berlin said...

Greg - That's a perfect summation of the two films. I would just add that both excel as film because they have strong a strong comedic/dramatic blend and, perhaps more important: they both are dripping with humanity. That's the stuff we really relate to.

Greg Smyth said...

I agree Eric. There's something about the interplay of characters and the tragic/comic balance of Swingers that means I never tire of watching it. I'm sure Sideways will be in exactly the same category when the DVD's out this side of the pond.

Eric Berlin said...

I couldn't agree more.

Swingers was strangely influential on my life. I'll have to get into that story at some point, but I'll just leave it at saying that it was at least partially responsible for my ending up in California.

In any event, it's a great movie that I've seen many times and you're right: I never get tired of it either. Sideways is perhaps a bit more painful to sit through, but I could see enjoying it down the road. Tragi-comedies tend to get better the more you watch as you can enjoy the comedic bits more and are less pained by the dramatic bits.