Please Stop Trying To Make Me Care About Assholes: A “Sideways” Rant
Here’s a little game for you: close your eyes and picture these two people.
One is a failed writer. Like all good fictional writer characters, he’s also very, very depressed. You know what he doesn’t find depressing though? Wine. But he’s not a drunk, no way: just a connoisseur. The type of guy to say every varietal’s name with an obnoxious French accent and complain that the reason he’s not getting published is because his work is just too smart for common people. Oh, and he’s also still hung up on his ex-wife after two years of divorce, something that he could easily hide if it weren’t for embarrassing drunken texts and phone calls to the woman he once called his.
Sounds insufferable? Wait until you meet the other guy.
That’s his friend — his best friend, in fact. If you’re getting worried about having to read about not one, but two writers, don’t worry: this one’s a failed actor instead. He does have something more than the other guy: a wife, and a apparently, a pretty cool one too. But his relationship isn’t all it set out to be, and the perspective of spending his life with just one person is making some pretty big anxieties come to the surface. The logical answer to this is of course to try to find one last girl to cheat on his future wife with before resigning himself to married life.
Sideways, Alexander Payne’s 2004 adaptation of Rex Pickett’s novel of the same name, dares to answer a question that no one asked in the first place: what would it be like to spend a week listening to two insufferable middle-aged men babbling on and on about wine and women?
A nightmare. That’s what it would be like. And believe it or not, I didn’t actually need a movie to figure that one out.
Even though Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen both figure on the poster as main cast members, make no mistake: the female characters of this movie are little more than plot devices. They act as ways to comfort both Miles and Jack in their insecurities: of course Miles is a genius misunderstood by the mainstream — after all, there’s simply no way he could have written a bad book. See, this super cool girl is interested in him and even knows as much as he does about wine: that has to mean something! And of course Jack finds a girl who wants him as much as he wants her as soon as he takes off his engagement ring: who wouldn’t drop everything for a guy like him?
The film gained a certain niche reputation among (often self-proclaimed) sophisticated wine fanatics through its thorough exploration of wine culture, even going as far as influencing the wine industry itself (for those that may be unfamiliar with the anecdote and the film, Miles speaks many times of his love for Pinot Noir while denigrating Merlot; following the release of the film in the United States, the latter’s sales dropped by 2% while Pinot Noir’s rose by 16%). I personally don’t know enough of anything about wine to say how accurate Miles, Stephanie and Maya’s conversations on the subject are; but that doesn’t really matter at all.
Wine is just an excuse, just like writing complicated books and getting married are. These may all look like mature, adult things to do, but they are little more than a veil for the characters to hide how much they really are children at heart. You can give a five year old three bottles of rosé and that still wouldn’t give the poor kid any ability to do his taxes (although that would probably be synonymous with a prison sentence for you). Having two infants in the bodies of adult males as protagonists wouldn’t be as bad if Sideways didn’t want me to like them so badly without giving me much of any reason to do so. “Yeah, maybe he’s cheating on his future wife, but look he’s crying!”, Payne tells me. “Great, I don’t give a shit!”, I reply, wondering how much longer this movie can possibly be.
Unfortunately for Payne, “He’s not an asshole, he’s just depressed/confused” can only work for so long as a way to deal with a character. There’s nothing wrong with an asshole protagonist; the problem is that the whole movie relies on the assumption that the viewer will have compassion for these two to work. This simple presupposition ends up giving little more maturity to the film than to its protagonists. Once again, putting alcohol and sexual references in a kindergarten doesn’t make it any less of a childish place. It just gives you a bunch of drunk, possibly messed up for life toddlers, and a bunch of lawsuits for their teachers.
These criticisms may seem harsh, but it’s not any less harsh than the way Payne treats any character that isn’t Miles or Jack. They’re laughing stocks, or things to briefly love and then discard, and that’s if they ever get past the sex toy status. How a film can exhibit so much and so little empathy at once may be an achievement in and of itself, but not a particularly glorious one. Its comedy, its narrative and any interest we might have in it completely relies on us not only liking the protagonists, but also being satisfied with them staying just the way they are. Character development is SO 1990 anyways.
If this review feels like it’s going around in circles, that’s probably because watching the film is a disturbingly close experience than trying to hit 10k steps a day under a lockdown: a lot of stomping around in the same places and going back exactly where you came from. If there is one positive thing to get from Sideways, it is how real it feels; how easily we excuse horrible people (*cough* grown ass men *cough*) from their horrible conducts because they’re sad sometimes. And just like in real life, spending a whole week with someone begging me to like their pretentious friends is pretty much at the bottom of my priority list. This may have felt like a great vintage wine back when it first came out, but today, it just leaves the taste of an expired bottle at the bottom of a cellar in desperate need of a good clean up.