Writers lives are, if not a “hot” topic in Hollywood, at least a warm one. Since film projects often begin with writers, it’s no surprise that the cinematic gaze sometimes turns navel-ward.
The writing life has been mined for entertainment in films as varied as Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece, Contempt (1964), Fred Zinnemann’s romantic Lillian Hellman vs. the Nazis fictional memoir, Julia (1979), the Goldie Hawn-Burt Reynolds vehicle Best Friends (‘82), the Cohen Brothers blazing satire, Barton Fink (1991), Robert Altmann’s overrated The Player (1992), Curtis Hanson’s dull Wonder Boys (2000), Phillip Kaufman’s obnoxious Quills (2000), Stephen Daldry’s tepid The Hours (2002) and Spike Jonze’s much-praised Adaptation (2002). Comedy, tragedy and deep-tissue angst: writers are a tortured, misunderstood and stressed-out bunch. This is one deep navel.
Alexander Payne’s new independent film from Fox Searchlight, Sideways,(2004) hybrids the anguished writer, buddy picture and road-trip genres in a fresh, often poignant comedy. It’s the story of a frustrating creature named Miles (Paul Giamatti) and his sidekick, Jack (Thomas Hayden Church), who, on the eve of Jack’s wedding to his rich fiancée, embark on a last, boys-only golf fling in California wine country.
Stuck in mourning for a failed marriage, seemingly unable to get his life going again, Miles supplements a crumbling identity as an almost-novelist (“I’m a thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper”) with a serious pose as a wine connoisseur. A pursuit which hasn’t disappointed him, it’s the one area where he’s successful and in charge.
Whereas Miles is a shuffling, diffident intellectual, Jack – a former soap star – is all energy, charm and enthusiasm. He’s a dim, would-be stud who falls genuinely in love with a new girl every day. Of course, curious combos are the engine of buddy pictures – from Midnight Cowboy (1969) to Thelma and Louise (1991)- in fact, Miles and Jack may be two sides of the same coin: neither has honest, sustainable relations with women, and neither is making a living (we see Miles steal cash from his aging mother).
But their clashing agendas for the trip put them at odds. Miles anticipates a quiet sojourn whose stated aims are his own; Jack announces his intention to find some girls who “wanna party.” Miles’s protests at the shallowness of Jack’s hopes begin to ring hollow as he mulishly avoids the attentions of a pair of genuinely attractive “hotties” they meet in wine country. His clinging to his past is even more indefensible than Jack’s adolescent lust for life.
Miles comes alive only when he’s sampling and appreciating wine. Many of the film’s best scenes center around wine-tasting and criticism: the device is, by turns, impressive in revealing Miles’s expertise, comic in Jack’s estimation of wine as panty-remover, and an ideal vehicle for sexy subtext in intimate conversations with those “hotties” (played by Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen). The film evokes California life as an existential smorgasbord with choices so tempting that Jack is willing to give up his impending marriage to shack up with Sandra Oh and grow grapes (and who could blame him?).
The vogue for foreign art films in the Sixties and Seventies declined as audiences began to realize that trite philosophic musings sounded more profound when uttered in French, and that, combining Gallic romanticism, a little Sartre, and music by Georges Delerue would certify a cinematic “masterpiece.” With its wine country setting, its tragicomic protagonists and overnight romance, Sideways could be a French film: an almost verbatim transposition would work well. American independent cinema has come of age.
But it also seems to have gone about as far as it can in its self-imposed primary mission of portraying redemption of slackers and the socially-marginalized. The slacker generation – and make no mistake, this is an aging slacker movie – grew up on comic book culture and imitation cinema based on the serialized movie adventures of sixty and seventy years ago. Their world-view has always been derivative and uninspiring. Tim Burton’s films are prime exemplars.
In fact, the American cinema’s ongoing attempts to create intelligent drama for adult audiences frequently stumbles with its primary mandate: to tell good stories. (The Master(2012) is a good example.) After two thirds of a good, character-driven story, the necessity of a dramatic climax befuddles the makers of Sideways as it has so many others. Sandra Oh’s retaliatory attack on Jack for exploiting her affections is brilliantly effective, but following that the film veers sideways – at Jack’s unexpectedly hysterical request – in a contrived subplot about retrieval of his wallet from yet another scene of sexual “conquest.” It leads to a comic-suspense scene that’s a crowd-pleaser but which signals a change in tone that damages the film’s impact. However, equilibrium is regained with a return to the main thrust of the film: Miles’s paralysis in the face of personal and artistic failure. And it ends on a hopeful note.
Paul Giamatti’s ability to portray a man drowning in despair is utterly extraordinary – he’ll certainly be nominated for the usual awards. Virginia Madsen delivers an enchanting “What Wine Means to Me” monologue that is a triumph of writing and performance. Sandra Oh manages to achieve a great deal in an under-written role. And director Payne tells his story simply and eloquently, stumbling only once, in Miles’s phone call to his former wife, where his observational camera becomes needlessly interpretive.
Despite their success and artistry, the bulk of American independents continue a tedious inward turn that lacks the confidence to tackle humane subjects in contexts other than stories of losers. There are no humane winners anymore. Winning has been left to the major studios and the fascist-style super heroes they enshrine. The only contemporary antidote to this trend is the popularity of social criticism documentaries that began with Fahrenheit 911 and The Corporation.
I wouldn’t dream of seeing Sideways twice. Shouldn’t cinema be greater than this? Can’t movies aim higher than cinematic Zoloft? “Complacent philosophical quietism” is Oxford’s definition of navel-gazing. Instead of taking on the world and its discontents, the slacker generation is slowly strangling on its own umbilical cord.