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April 21, 2005

Sideways: The 'American' Male

It's out on DVD and so the spousal unit and I watched it at home with a big deli spread and a bottle of Two Buck Chuck.

Life is rated R, in case you haven't noticed, and so is this mild-mannered comedy about the foibles and failings of two friends trying desparately to reach the fun zone in California wine country before a fateful wedding. It is a formula I would hope to see more of - a romantic comedy that is not about romance, not about coupling and the awkward dancing that comes before, but about trying to get yourself together (as a man in this case) in advance of a life-defining moment.

Miles, the middle school English teacher and Jack, the commercial hack actor are two friends who know each other's weaknesses and manage to overlook them. But you already know the plot...

What strikes me about this movie is how profoundly cynical one must be to write it, how little jay the author must have found in an ordinary life, what little respect and nobility they must find when one is not making it. The entire desparation of Miles, this insurmoutable anomie that makes him a half-drunk. He clings desparately to the signs of success and destroys himself abeyance to the one trade that might make him happy. But for him, wine appreciation is half cosmetic, half obsession. It's something he cannot do for its own satisfaction, rather something he must have as an avocation, quite frankly to pickup women. He is not embedded in his domain and therefore he is half a man. The resolution of this dilemma is not faced, but elided. He needs approval, just like his precious pinot grapes, tending so that his complex flavors might surface. But is he that, or is it just a figment of his imagination? He doesn't even know himself.

Jack is just a different flavor of the same bad vintage. In the end he is an empty shell, nothing without the hand of his princess.

I cannot help but wonder if this film could be seen by anyone as an accurate portrayal of American manhood. And yet the film has become a phenomenon as upscale consumers have gone on a binging rampage over the very bottles of wine which are the subtext of the film.

What's odd about it is that the substance of the good times in the entire film is also elided - it kind of falls into the muted set piece of laughing happy fishheads at the restaurant. Half of the movie looks like an Olive Garden commercial. Crack the right bottle of wine, and it's good times. That is if you behave happily, if you pretend that nothing's wrong.

If the movie wasn't funny, I'd think it almost an indictment. What else could you do, but follow the lead of Stephanie and beat Sideways over the head with a motorcycle helmet?

Part of this review comes from a nice warmed over slice of contempt for the American middle class, not as people, but as a people. I grew up with the sort of expectation of the upper middle class of America that I found in Neil Simon plays and Blake Edwards & Woody Allen movies. Perhaps I comsumed those at too early an age because I thought these were simple mockeries, and the real people had a bit more integrity and sense. But it turns out that they were a bit more on target, but do they take themselves seriously? Hard to tell? After all, whom is there to recieve the complaint? Do people actually watch Six Degrees of Separation or Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and modify their behavior?

I don't know. Perhaps Tony Kushner is the last moralist in the American arts and the popularity of Sideways is the proof.

Hmm. Thank God I didn't go to Haverford. I'd be like this all the time.

Posted by mbowen at April 21, 2005 11:31 PM

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