Bright Lights Film Journal

Sideways: Sideways to Hell, Maybe!

Alexander Payne’s new indie is headed in the wrong direction

Do you ever get the feeling that there are too many white people in the world? Too much pinot noir, too much Restoration Hardware, and too many medallions of veal, with or without black truffles? I don’t have the exact figures on this, but it’s likely that we’ve invested close to half a trillion dollars over the last thirty years in California quaint — good wine and good food, funky flowerboxes and unpretentious rural retreats — and I’m starting to get nervous. God is notorious for not having a sense of humor about this sort of thing,1 and once God gets mad, He doesn’t stop until He’s finished. I’m not talking about 0.7 rumblings on the Richter Scale. I’m talking about the San Andreas Fault splitting the Golden State right in half, to be followed by massive basaltic extrusions that will pave over the entire West Coast, from Vancouver to Cabo San Lucas. Frankly, it’s about time that we got back to the things that made America great — ham and eggs, hot roast beef sandwiches,2 black coffee, cheap whiskey, and Lucky Strikes.

All this is by way of introduction to saying that I didn’t like the latest fave rave of the Yuppie Fascist Film Critics of America, Sideways, directed by Alexander Payne, based on the novel by Rex Pickett. Sideways is undeniably funny in parts — if you can’t laugh at fat folks fucking you’ve just got no balls at all — but overall this film is less believable than Blade: Trinity. None of the people in this film would be spending time together in the real world, wherever and whatever that is. Do fading TV stars (Thomas Haden Church,3) as “Jack”) hang with eighth-grade English teachers? Do eighth-grade English teachers (Paul Giamatti, as “Miles”) have the cash to become serious oenophiles? Do gorgeous blondes (Virginia Madsen, as “Maya”) leap into bed with whining, unpublished novelists?4 Do gorgeous, hip young chicks (Sandra Oh, as “Stephanie”) tell pot-bellied ex-jocks that they need a spanking?What’s particularly irritating (or at least what I found particularly irritating) in a film that asks to be taken seriously is the use of one of the very lamest film clichés, background music to cue us that what a character is saying is absolutely pure, absolutely good and true. When Maya makes her big speech about how a bottle of wine is a living thing,5 we hear, ever so subtly, a tinkling piano in the background. It’s only three fucking notes, but three fucking notes of tinkling piano is three fucking notes too many!6

Why do the critics fall for this shit? Because, when you strip away all the tricks, this film is made for people who read the New Yorker, and the point of this film is that if you read the New Yorker, then you are better than people who don’t read the New Yorker.7 Although the film goes to considerable lengths to show Miles’ “dark side” — he’s whiny, pretentious, manipulative, deceitful, emotionally withdrawn, he even steals money from his mother — in the end, he’s a hero. He knows what “abattoir” means8; he can quote Bukowski9; he can talk knowledgeably about wine; and that is what counts. He’s a walking pinot noir — irritable and thin-skinned, but with the seeds, or rather the pulp, of greatness within.

The proof of the pudding, of course, is that his novel drives Maya into ecstasies. “How you must have suffered!” she tells him, overwhelmed by its depth and passion, despite the fact that throughout most of the film it seems that Miles makes other people suffer. He’s hurtful and obnoxious because he cares, damn it! Because he’s special! Give him a chance! He’ll be another fucking Woody Allen!

  1. Actually, God has a great sense of humor, if you think Hell is funny. []
  2. When I had my first hot roast beef sandwich at age ten I was in heaven. White bread and gravy! What a concept! []
  3. Jack doesn’t look like he’s fading, he looks like he’s crashed and burned. Church is a long, long way from his “glory” days in the execrable sitcom Wings back in the early nineties. With his dour, Eeyore disposition, Church always looked like he could handle a good line if he ever got one, but he never did. (Neither did anyone else in the cast. []
  4. When I showed my (first) unpublished novel around, I didn’t get laid, I lost half my friends. When I finally did get published, I lost the other half. No wonder it’s lonely at the top! Everybody hates you! []
  5. A bottle of wine is not a living thing. Does it have a pulse? Unless you mean all those billions of bacteria swarming around inside. Yummy! []
  6. Because of its faux subtlety, the tinkling piano shtick is perhaps even more irritating, though less loud, than the howling choral music used in horror films to tell us that some sort of seriously unholy shit is about to come down. Please, Hollywood, cut us some slack! I’m begging here, goddamn it! []
  7. It pains me to say it, but the New Yorker is pretty readable, most of the time. []
  8. French for “slaughterhouse.” Like I care! []
  9. Charles Bukowski (right), patron saint of the terminally fucked up, certainly had a horrible childhood, but as an adult he was a bully, a drunk, a wife beater, and a bad writer — just not my type at all. []