A Look Askance at Sideways

02.28.2005 | Bret Csencsitz | Film | 1 Comment
Sideways isn’t a bad movie, but it certainly isn’t the great movie the copious praise (and five Oscar nominations including best picture, with one win for best screenplay) it has collected would indicate. Are critics so bereft of quality films that they gush over a film that only aspires to be great?

For almost all of the film’s 123 minutes we are made aware of the hand of writer and director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt), who is at pains to tell us he has something interesting, important and meaningful to say.

We are constantly aware of when Payne feels something is important. When our protagonist, Miles, filches some cash from his aging mother’s lingerie drawer, for instance, Payne slows the action, points his camera nostalgically at old photos and underscores the moment with melancholic music. The effect is to manipulate our sympathy rather than to earn it.

There are a few moments of genuine comedy and some scenes where we empathize with our characters’ plights but ultimately Sideways is no more than a mildly entertaining melodrama about four adults for whom life has become a disappointment. Only Moya, played by Virginia Madsen, is of much interest; we get the sense that she has suffered life’s slings and arrows and survived with integrity. When she discusses wine with Miles, played with deserved praise by Paul Giametti, Maya comes across as genuine, personal and honest, while Giametti’s character just plays at life — a life that is one personal disaster after another. Why Maya finds any interest in Miles is a mystery, for he does nothing but behave badly, albeit at times to invoke sympathy.

As for the film’s wine references, intended as a nonstop metaphor for appreciating life, these are so bland and shallow to anyone with even the most limited knowledge of wine or life. Perhaps the completely uninitiated will find humor in its silly depictions of an overly eager “aficionado” who knows the lingo but doesn’t understand the intention; all ceremony and no substance. The metaphor is pushed and pulled at moments that scream, “this is poetic license.” Think “Life is like a box of chocolates” and you’ll have the idea.

I imagine the inspiration for this film was: a group of friends sitting around a collection of empty bottles discussing the artistic nature of winemaking and the elements that go into its creation, life and longevity. This may be true, but like any over-wrought metaphor its borders burst into cliché when pushed too far. I enjoy wine myself and even enjoy discussing a wine’s qualities and have discussed how life-like wine is in its varieties, values and descriptions: fruity, austere, bubbly, crisp, spicy, sweet, tart, acidic, bright, bold, over-bearing, flabby, fat, lean, tight and on and on. I do not, however, the next morning, draw life’s secrets from so simple a motif.

In the few moments when neither Payne nor wine intrude, we recognize ourselves in a world where tragic, thoughtful, silly decisions collect and gather to create a life. The moment Maya tells us why she likes wine and how it affects her — beyond the intoxication, which is blithely ignored through most of the film — is affecting, despite writing that is overtly poetic. We get a flash of this character’s life, and sense that she is alive. Why would she associate with Miles who is pursuing a life rather than living one?

Miles’ biggest problem is he is too busy trying to be something rather than just being. The film suffers from the same problem. It isn’t as important as its makers or the critics are attempting to make it. The wine-like metaphor is as hollow as its refrain about living in the moment, seizing the day, carpe diem, etc. These ideas aren’t necessarily bad ones, but here we feel trite and a little empty when its over, and walk away saying, “it’s just a movie,” rather than feeling we experienced something to remember.

Mike Leigh’s 15th film Vera Drake, on the other hand, is worthy of its critical accolades (and three Oscar nominations, including best director). Leigh is at the top of his game with this engaging and powerful film. 

Vera Drake is about abortion, and Planned Parenthood has taken to screening the film as a promotional tool for its pro-choice perspective. But the film isn’t a Cider House Rules-style polemic; it’s about the strange alliances and unforeseen conflicts we navigate in the face of large issues, like abortion, and the film refuses to flatter, to pander to its audience by sentimentalizing the experience.

Leigh has been making films for over 30 years and while his ultra-realistic style and improvisation-based work have earned him something of a cult following, he’s at times had difficulty finding an audience in the States. Vera Drake has found an audience here, in large part due to its topic no doubt. But this is art, not propaganda, and his realism is, however counter-intuitively, akin to the modern artists who seek truth in mystery and subjectivity. Leigh’s realism moves us past the shoddy pro-choice and pro-life constructions to reveal a more personal and difficult drama.
As is usually the case with Leigh’s films the acting feels profoundly natural.  All the actors are exceptional in their realistic portrayals, a testament to Leigh’s extended rehearsals, with Imelda Staunton delivering an especially stunning performance as a devoted wife and mother in postwar England, who secretly provides assistance to women seeking to end their pregnancies.

Mike Leigh says his films aspire toward documentary and Vera Drake feels like one.  The shooting style is low and character oriented.  Rarely do you see odd angled or even overhead shots; almost all the shots are from the characters’ perspectives. 

And the naturalism extends to the plot, which follows the day-to-day lives of these characters, their small actions and choices. How they greet people, what they do for a living and how they do it, how they eat dinner and relate to their families, friends and lovers all slowly unfolds. Leigh uses music to add hints and notes of feeling but he does so with a slight hand; at the big moments he lets us feel for ourselves. He doesn’t comment so much as he accents scenes. 

We become engaged and invested in these people, even when we find ourselves not liking them, or disagreeing with their actions. We see real people who with intentions and disturbances are doing what they know, whether it be damaging or nurturing and at times hysterical— yes there is comedy in this serious film.

There are no jokes or set ups here, but just situations reflecting the blunders, misconceptions, limitations at times driven by an absurd desires to be other than ourselves. Leigh affords us the chance to see how silly we can be especially when we try so hard to be instead of being. The comedic moments in Vera Drake are at times akin to Sideways in that they are moments when the character is trying so hard to be something they want to be but are not. Unlike Sideways, though Vera Drake offers us a chance to reflect on these choices rather than dictating how we should take them.  While ending the film with a subtle nod towards the pro-choice side of the debate, Leigh’s film is engaging more for its ability to offer perspective on what is a most contentious issue. Vera Drake allows us to contemplate the choices and their ramifications even those we feel are made altruistically or based upon moral tenets.

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12.21.2010 | Annh

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