Media Review - Sideways
Years ago, I would likely have seen a new film from a director like Alexander Payne shortly after it was released, but I didn't get around to seeing Sideways until after it has already won a lot of awards and been called "the most overrated film of the year." Sideways has also now gotten several academy award nominations, but not one for lead actor Paul Giamatti who seemed like a shoo-in.
As much as we might like to believe otherwise, I don't think anyone sees a movie or reads a book without evaluating it in light of whatever information they have about it beforehand, whether it come from a genre classification, pre-release hype, critical response or even friends' assessments. The most pernicious manifestations of this are the "conformist" and "contrarian" reactions. Some people will tend to follow what they perceive as a consensus opinion, especially of people they consider their "peers" or "opinion leaders" while others tend to form their opinions in opposition to people they think of as poor judges of value.
Critical consensus and backlash can both be explained by these impulses, but that doesn't mean that they are always caused by them. It's just hard to say whether you would respond to something the same way if you were experiencing it unmediated by whatever you already think about it. I went into Sideways to come to my own conclusions, so I hope.
Overall, it wasn't bad. In fact, I liked Sideways all right, although I can't imagine naming it the best film of the year, even in a bad movie year. Despite all the hype and counter-hype, over the course of watching Sideways my thoughts about it became shaped as much if not more by its resemblance to another movie. Before I get to that, though, some other thoughts.
For the first 20 minutes or so, I was not feeling too generous toward it. The story of a bachelor and his friend enjoying a last romp of freedom before his marriage isn't exactly untravelled dramatic territory. Of course, every story is familiar at some level of generality, but this particular story doesn't merit the frequency with which writers and filmmakers return to it. At any rate, it wasn't a promising beginning.
The characters themselves are familiar. Miles, Paul Giamatti's unpublished novelist, is embittered, alone, temperamental and finicky, but witty, literate and intelligent. Jack (Thomas Haden Church,) the actor bridegroom, is his more successful friend and like all cinematic bridegrooms, he is determined to enjoy a final bacchanal. He wants his grumpy friend to join in, or at least stay out of his way. In short order, Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh) are established as matches for Miles and Jack. Or at least as targets, respectively.
And this is where it becomes difficult to know whether your responses are your own. AO Scott asserts that the critical response to Sideways is due in part to the identification of film critics with the middle-aged, verbally adept writer character with overdeveloped critical faculties who's not too confident with women, and the responsiveness and attention he receives gratifies them. Critical regard, it should go without saying, should result from something more than gratification of personal desires. When I read it I couldn't tell whether Scott's comments were fair as applied to Sideways (I hadn't seen it) and I now think he's overstating it a bit. That said, I definitely think his larger point, that critics tend to rate films that they can relate to and that share their own concerns better, is true and believe that the unusually generous critical response to Sideways can't be explained by the quality of the film itself. David Poland wrote a response to Scott's article that I had read about before and just read now. Poland is a very enthusiastic film critic, and by that I mean that he's crazy. His claim here is that the NYT and Scott particularly are trying to influence the outcome of the Oscars, which I find hard to believe. Whether or not NYT critics can actually influence the outcome of the Academy Awards is debatable, but if film critics and reviewers actually care who wins them, then film criticism is in a lot worse shape than I thought. I recommend Poland, though, if you ever need a good laugh. He's like a much less generous, pugnacious Harry Knowles.
With movies that adopt the point of view of male characters as explicitly as Sideways does, there's always a temptation to suspect that the female characters exist merely to react to or provide motivation for the male characters. Stephanie is game and sexy, playful and fun, but is quickly marginalized. Her character is difficult to take seriously; she develops a level of affection and trust in Jack very quickly. Not impossible, but it's hard to believe a woman with a child wouldn't have developed some emotional defenses. Maya is certainly more interesting and gets at least a semblance of subjectivity and self-direction.
Scott's claim that middle-aged male film critics felt affinity with the material that leant it greater appeal is certainly plausible. While watching it, I was reminded repeatedly of Swingers, a comedy about the floundering professional and personal lives of guys in their mid-20s that appealed disproportionately to guys in their mid-20s. I was in my mid-20s when Swingers came out and I liked it a lot, but didn't think it was great cinema. I knew a lot of guys who did, though and I'm sure there are a lot more out there like those guys who are film reviewers now.
I'm not saying that Sideways is exactly like Swingers, but they share several qualities. Both are centered on two friends, one more contemplative and downbeat, unable to get over a previous relationship, the other more juvenile and hedonistic, to whom things come a bit easier and disinclined to think too deeply about things. The main characters, Miles the unpublished novelist in Sideways and Mike the comedian in Swingers whose career is similarly dead-ended, are both pretty annoying and capable of being pains in the ass, but are played by likeable actors. The friend characters, Jack and Trent, are both themselves actors, successful with women, and less sympathetic. Swingers has nothing even resembling a female character, but that movie is brave enough to suggest that the reason Mike isn't successful as a comedian is that he isn't actually very good at it. Sideways, meanwhile, generously leaves you with the impression that Miles' novels are unpublished because of the failings of the overly commercialized publishing industry.
Whatever. The point isn't that these movies are exactly the same or that they are both terrible. Their similarity does suggest, to me, that if I did think Sideways was one of the best films of 2004 I'd have to entertain the possibility that Swingers was the best film of 1996. I don't think either of those things are true.
Sideways has its own virtues and vices worth discussing as well. The acting is very good, but I can understand not nominating Paul Giamatti for best actor. He's fine, but not revelatory and the part isn't unfamiliar. It's hard for an actor to do really exceptional work with a character who, to be honest, is already pretty well known to anyone who has watched a lot of movies. Virginia Madsen is excellent, however, since she's given little to work with apart from one strong monologue and nevertheless gives the audience a sense of her character's depth. I've been a fan of Madsen since Candyman, where she almost singlehandedly saved an intriguing horror film premise from being buried under an indifferent production as so many intriguing horror premises are.
Thomas Haden Church doesn't do much with Jack, but the failing lies just as much with cowriter/director Payne as it does with Church. An interesting movie might have been made trying to shed light on Jack's "plight," as he refers to it, but his character is presented as self-evident to the extent that he isn't inscrutable. Woody Allen (whose movies are replete with verbose anhedonics and failed artists that serve as models for Miles) once wrote that "marriage is the death of hope" and that quip could probably serve to explain everything we learn about Jack's compulsive infidelity. Jack's actions and problems matter in the film primarily in how they affect Miles. I suppose it's safe to conclude that Jack's marriage will encounter some difficulties, but like all questions related to Jack this is a peripheral issue. In fact, Payne's singular concern with Miles' problems and issues lends indirect support to Scott's argument, since Sideways comes across as a movie where Miles "matters" and other characters don't. Someone could always respond that Jack is just an unsympathetic person and thus less interesting, but that's not a satisfying answer for a movie whose only claim to depth has to rest on its humanism. Humanism, to be valuable, has to encompass people we can't imagine as ourselves.
The fact that defenders of the film have reacted angrily to Scott's article is interesting to me, particularly since many reviews of Sideways have referred to the main characters as "losers" and Scott's suggestion that critics identify with them implies that many film critics are losers as well. I think the "loser" appellation unwarranted; perhaps both characters wanted other things for themselves, but the fact that they haven't achieved everything they wanted in life hardly makes them losers. Calling Miles a loser only makes sense from the "Sideways as humanist masterpiece" perspective, where sympathy for a character becomes a virtue by overlooking the character's shortcomings. It helps to evaluate those shortcomings harshly, then forgive them as long as the character remains sympathetic.
In sum, I enjoyed Sideways somewhat, but I can't imagine watching it again. It's quite familiar and narrow, and its precision can't make up for that. At the same time, AO Scott's speculation about the cause of its critical success is just that, speculation. I noticed that Jonathan Rosenbaum was similarly dismissive of Sideways, but attributes its adulation to a regressive impulse, a retreat into the proficient execution of a moviemaking model from decades past, a way of saying "[i]t's been a tough year. Let's get back under the blankets" in his own words. This is a good theory as well.