Thoughts on the movie “Sideways” — What if Miles had self-published?

Hey, remember that film Sideways? A few years ago it got a lot of notice & won some Academy Awards & gave a big boost to Paul Giamatti’s career. I went to see Sideways with my wife when it came out, and boy, did it steam her up. I have never seen a movie make her so angry. She would barely talk to me when we left the theatre, and I had nothing to do with the movie! All I did was suggest we go see it, based on some reviews I had read that called it a “buddy movie/road movie” and a “comedy/drama” about two middle-aged guys depressed with their lots in life who go off to the wine country the week before one of the guys is to be married. From my wife’s reaction, you would think I had tricked her into going with me to some sleazy sex club for some “spontaneous” fill-in-the-blank.

Below the fold: The difference between moving sideways and taking the slow train to hell.

What pissed off my wife, probably, was not only the fact that the film is not remotely comedic–it is a story of two people who are damned and a third who may or may not be damned: it is a story about hell (not funny)–; it was also that the movie was hateful, full of contempt for nearly every character in it, and it celebrates drunk driving. Sideways isn’t about people who are sliding sideways through life; it’s about people who are going down. And we’re supposed to laugh at them. (I had laughed at one or two of the cruel jokes, and that didn’t sit well with my date.) Finally, the premise of some wannabe novelist who drinks too much and dreams of striking it rich when his book gets published probably hit a little too close to the bone.

I remember going home and staying up late reading reviews on the Internet trying to figure out what had just happened. Didn’t find a review that actually described the movie, although one or two got a few points right. (For example Roger Ebert clearly states right out of the box that the Giamatti guy is a full-blown drunk–that’s the central fact of the movie. But many reviewers didn’t seem to notice that.)

So here’s my analysis. We have the sex addict guy, “Jack”, who’s engaged to be married. He’s damned. There is no hope for him. He knows, vaguely, that he is damned, but doesn’t understand why. He thinks it’s because he cannot “commit” or because he “hasn’t found the right woman” (until meeting the woman he “falls in love with” in the movie). But in fact he is damned because he has a severe mental illness, for which there is no cure. (Does Tiger Woods have the same condition? Maybe. But the Sideways sex addict guy most reminds me of John Paul Vann, the subject of Neal Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Viet Nam, whose sexual compulsions directed his actions even in the middle of gun battles with the Viet Cong.) Ever meet anybody with a mental illness? I have, and so has my wife. Let me tell you: there is nothing funny about it. Jack will never be happy; his compulsion to copulate rules that out, forever. All he really experiences are need and orgasm. Where did this compulsion come from? Don’t ask me. Ask a psychiatrist or a neurologist or ask God, maybe.

The second character who is damned is the waitress/horticulture student that the the Giamatti writer guy connects with. She is damned because she is alcoholic and hasn’t the faintest clue that she is. You can tell that when her wake-up call comes, if it ever does, it’s going to be too late.

The character who may or may not be damned is the writer, “Miles” played by Giamatti. There is some hope for him because he has at least some self-awareness. He more or less acknowledges his alcoholism, but he has convinced himself, or pretends to have convinced himself, that when his book gets accepted by a big publishing house (with a big advance) and becomes a big literary and commercial success, his life will turn around–and maybe he’ll even take a serious look at his relationship with wine.

All through the movie we see Miles phoning his literary agent, following minute-by-minute the reactions from various publishing houses to his manuscript. With each successive rejection, Miles gets more upset & more in need of a drink.

Well, I know the name o’ dat tune. And so does my wife. It’s not a very funny tune, I can tell you that much.

The central question of the movie — is the writer damned too? — cannot be answered by the viewer, because we are not given one vital bit of information: is the novel any good? If the novel’s any good, if the guy has talent, then maybe he hasn’t wasted the last X years of his life writing it. Maybe he can wrench some value, financial or otherwise, out of it.

I liked the movie well enough, but in a “Leaving Las Vegas” kind of way, not in a “The Hangover” kind of way. It was interesting and well-acted. But no damn way it was a buddy movie or a comedy. It was an invitation to a train wreck.

Clearly I identified with the novelist guy Miles –although unlike him I still had a wife, and unlike him I didn’t drink three bottles of wine a night or find myself drinking from the spit bucket at a wine-tasting. As the credits rolled I really wished I could have found that fictional novelist and taken him aside and said, “Hey, forget trying to sell your book. Just publish it yourself. Worst that can happen is that nobody will read it, which is where you are now. Best that can happen is maybe you’ll connect with a few thousand fans, get a bunch of great reviews, and maybe you’ll have some fun, and maybe some of those fans will be wildly enthusiastic fans, even, and maybe you’ll be able to put this book to rest and move on to the next one. And maybe you’ll even stop drinking in the morning. Hey, it worked for me.”

In this economy there are lots and lots of us moving sideways. I’m pretty terrified of falling off the cliff again myself. I’m still writing novels too, and I’m still hoping that one or all of them will suddenly become that monster hit and solve all my financial worries.

But I’m not betting the ranch on it anymore. I’m happy with any job that pays the bills. Which reminds me, I have a few clients for my technical writing services, but not enough. If you need anybody with some skills in that department, please give me a holler.

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5 Comments

  1. Betty Burton says:

    Thank you. I think you very eloquently described the reasons I hated that movie and still do.
    Dear Wife

  2. Stearns says:

    May you always have someone who gets really mad at your bad choices and your simple mistakes.

  3. John says:

    Howard,

    Lol, marriage. Oy!

    But in fairness to Dear Wife, it was the movie that pissed her off, not me or my suggestion that we go see it. I just happened to be the guy with her when the credits rolled and the lights went up, so I got a bit of collateral damage.

  4. Harold says:

    Clearly I’m not seeing enough movies these days. But I’ve had the impression for some time that our entertainment has become increasingly mean-spirited. Perhaps it ties into the general decline of our spirit as a people. Once we aspired to great things. Now we have become small and mean-spirited.

  5. John says:

    Harold,

    This movie won the Oscar for “Best Picture” or “Best Screenplay” or something — one of the big awards. People loved it as a “smart, subtle comedy”. I just don’t get that.

    On another site my friend Rusty said that he had just seen the more recent movie A Serious Man, by the Coen brothers, and disliked it for many of the reasons that my wife so disliked Sideways. I wonder what you would make of that movie, which is a modern “Story of Job” and which deals explicitly with the question of what it means to be a Jew in modern America. I was kind of baffled by ASM, and, while I think some of it was mean-spirited (not too uncommon in Coen bros movies), in general it was much less hateful than Sideways.

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