Sideways (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Today I am wearing the color yellow.
What the hell am I talking about? Well, if you know your Green Lantern mythology, you'll remember that he has complete control over all time and space, virtually infinite power, except that he has absolutely no power at all over anything yellow. With his magic ring, he can make entire planets vanish without a trace, but he can't pick up a #2 pencil. This probably explains why he got double 200s on his SATs.
As revealed cryptically by the hideous green DVD box, Alexander Payne, the creator of Sideways, must have hired Green Lantern to cast a spell of infinite power over the critics and the Academy, because by any measure of critical approval, this was one of the ten best films of the year, perhaps even in the top three. It received an average of four stars from the major British reviewers as well as our American super-panel. It is essentially a movie about a critic - not a movie critic, of course, but nonetheless a person whose raison d'etre is pronouncing judgments. Given that there is a natural tendency for critics to identify with the main character, perhaps that explains some of their passion for this movie.
And passion there was. Here's a more complete look at its standing by various measurements:
Motion Picture Academy:
The four tables above pretty much say it all. Sideways may have been the best-reviewed film of the year, and it received the Golden Globe for Best Picture, in the Musical or Comedy division. Critics saw it as possessing the heart of Casablanca, the spectacle of Lawrence of Arabia, the wit of Duck Soup, and the cultural significance of Andrej Rublev.
Green Lantern's powers worked magnificently.
Except on me. I was wearing yellow when I watched it.
The real reason I am immune to its charms, I suppose, is that director Alexander Payne actually invokes the powers of wine and whine. The film is a long and rhapsodic elegy to the California wine country and its industry, particularly the vintners of Central California. In the film's seemingly infinite length, about half of the dialogue is dedicated to some kind of wine talk: discussions of favorite grapes and vintages, monologues about wine as a symbol for life itself, parallels between the wine sampling of the characters and their intrinsic natures. When people are not talking about wine, they are staring lovingly at grapes and wine bottles.
Snobbery and rhapsody.
Even when not clad in yellow, I am immune to this appeal. Oh, it's obvious that the film is meant to appeal to middle-aged white people from the professional classes, and I am one of those, but I'm just not interested in wine or anything about it. I don't dislike wine; it is simply not a part of my life. I am virtually a teetotaler. My experience with wine is restricted to nursing the half glass of champagne that the family pours for me so I can partake in Christmas dinner toasts. Sometimes, every few years or so, I drink wine with a restaurant meal if somebody else orders the bottle. I think it is cool if you like wine. God bless ya. You have your thing, and I have mine. You like some Pouilly-Fousse and a good meal, while I like to shoot some top-grade heroin and seduce elderly nuns. Since my peculiarities are less acceptable than yours, I have no right to object to your love of wine, and I have no objection to your snobbery when you are amongst one another. Go for it. But I do have an objection to having to listen to your discussions. To me, this is about as interesting as listening to geeks discuss Dungeons and Dragons. I can't tell Chateau Lafitte from Boone's Farm. I don't know jack about grapes or weather or soil or which years were good, and I don't care to know about these matters, any more than I care to memorize all the different types of orchids or to learn the history of European soccer leagues. Wine talk just bores the living shit out of me. Thus, every time the conversation turns to oenological matters, I zone out and wait for somebody to change the topic. Well, guess what? That's what all the conversations are about in this movie.
Except for some whining.
When there is no wine lore on the docket, there is whine lore, from the master of malcontents, the titan of the whiny talk-too-much bitches, the live-action Eeyore himself, Paul Giamatti. Life is just treating his character so unfairly because he's such a great guy and such a genius, but his wife left him, his novels are rejected by the publishers, and he is forced to make a living by teaching A Separate Peace to Eighth Graders. Not only is this activity unrewarding psychologically, but it is so unremunerative that he is forced to steal money from his mother's secret stash. So he mopes his way through life. He would like to think of himself as a connoisseur, but he's really an alcoholic using his snobbery as a rationalization to get drunk on wine purchased from the money in momma's coffee can.
The film is about a one week road trip in which Giamatti's Eeyore is matched with the Tigger of Thomas Haden Church, a constantly upbeat guy who has neither the time nor the inclination for negativity or even for reflection. He just grabs impulsively for whatever he wants at the moment, like a little child seeking gratification of his immediate desires. As you can no doubt guess, his list of priorities is topped by poontang.
There's nothing for me here. I'm not interested in wine or whine. I am interested in poontang, but the only nudity was supplied by two guys and some fat chick. (If you play for the other team, however, the film is practically a wienerfest - see the nudity report for details.)
Before I popped Sideways in the DVD player, people told me that this was a brilliant movie, so I approached it enthusiastically and was astounded to discover that I seemed to watch it ... and watch it ... and watch it, tapping my fingers and waiting for something interesting or amusing to happen. When I finally surrendered to boredom and put the DVD player on pause, it read 1:22. What the hell! That's just about the length of an entire movie, and nothing much had happened yet.
I am also astounded that so many award societies felt that this was the best script of the year. It has its pleasures (especially for wine lovers), but it is also filled with some sophomoric mistakes. Some examples: (1) Tigger comes completely out of character when his English teacher friend says that he doesn't want to be the first author to commit suicide before his first work is published. Without missing a beat, the goofy Church cites the example of John Kennedy Toole, who committed suicide before the publication of A Confederacy of Dunces. Sure, a person could know that ... if he was Ken Jennings! In fact, I would even be surprised if the erudite Jennings could have summoned that fact from his encyclopedic mind without at least taking a little time to ponder it, and the Church character was not supposed to be scholarly, to say the least. (2) The Virginia Madsen character is underwritten and in a couple of instances, miswritten. She is underwritten in that she is basically just an object for Eeyore to pursue. We don't know anything about her except that she's divorced and loves wine. She is miswritten in that we find out about her love of wine from a long, unrealistic monologue which is written with the florid, verbose artifice of a 9th grade girl competing in an Original Oratory competition. Was this pretty speech imagined by the Giamatti character in a drunken delusion about his ultimate fantasy woman, or are we supposed to believe she is a real person who talks about wine in off-the-cuff conversations as if she were delivering JFK's inaugural address?
To me, the strangest thing about the reaction to this movie is that people seem to like it for the wrong reasons. People strongly identified with characters who seemed to me to be the subjects of the script's merciless ridicule. Alexander Payne was making fun of Miles and Jack wasn't he? I didn't think I was supposed to identify with an eighth grade teacher whose job performance is so perfunctory that he makes the class time pass by having the kids read aloud, a 40ish son who steals money from his aging mother, an unpublished writer who has written a novel which must be 1000 pages long and which he can't describe coherently, a single man who will walk out on a date with a beautiful and sensitive woman if she orders Merlot, a man who walks to wine tastings so he can get sloppy falling-down drunk (I always pictured these things to be more sophisticated), and a man who actually says things like "quaffable but not transcendent" absent any irony. Do people really talk like that? Do other people really not laugh at them? What a world! I thought the character was being ridiculed, but perhaps Paul Giamatti did such a good job at making Miles a living, breathing person that he single-handedly lifted the film beyond satire and into character study, beyond contempt and into sympathy. Good actors can do things like that, and Giamatti is very good at what he does. In fact, Matthew Broderick and Jack Nicholson accomplished very similar things with other Alexander Payne characters in Election and About Schmidt, so the elevation of a total loser on the page to a sympathetic character on the screen seems to be what Payne is striving for in his direction.
Let me soften my comments by saying that I did genuinely enjoy the last quarter of this film, during which the boys finally did something besides visit vineyards. There are some amusing moments as they attempt to recover a wallet lost during a disastrous sexual encounter, as they lose their tempers with some golfers playing behind them, and as they stage a false car crash as a cover story to explain to Church's fiancÚe why he looks like he has been beaten up by an angry husband. (Or in this case, by a particularly feisty lover who caught him in some lies.) If you read all of that back to yourself, you'll realize that the final quarter of the film is a fraternity road trip movie, except that the Deltas are now 40 years old instead of 20. I guess I like that kind of movie.
I'm not contending that this is a bad movie. Virtually every critic applauded it, and many other people think it is genius. But like a yellow bad guy battling the Green Lantern Society, I am immune to its powers. I thought it was pretty good, but not as good as its reputation, and certainly not strong enough to be among the five Oscar nominees. In short, it's quaffable, but not transcendent.
A few other notes:
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