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Sunday
Nov062016

Sideways

The history of art is generously peppered with odd couples, a conceit that in the cinema of more recent years has engendered the label “buddy movie.” Whether the twosome actually has to get along is unimportant provided they gain a better understanding of one another – and, one hopes, of themselves – by the end of their journey. Without disparaging the happy endings required of many popular films, the odd couple may be considered happy because they are not alone. In fact, the old adage about opposites attracting has much to do with each member of that couple embodying the qualities that the other lacks. The most visceral evidence of such a phenomenon can be found in high school and colleges around the world: the good-looking girl and her ill-favored best friend; the interethnic couple misunderstood in different ways by society at large; the quiet nerdy guy who cannot procure bathroom directions from a female yet somehow gets along with his ebullient, rambunctious stud of a roommate. One cannot help but notice that such strange pairings are fewer over time, perhaps because most people who age and survive in this world become more complete. They develop aspects of both odd couple members, making themselves less of a caricature and more into a genuine human being. And it is a textbook example of the last duo and a certain level of immaturity that drive this acclaimed film.

Our protagonist is the fortyish Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti), but you may know him from your high school or college yearbook as someone else. Nature has not blessed him with looks and he has chosen to go along with that assessment. Little is done in the way of exercise, grooming, or presentability, but drinking and reading are habitual and daily. Miles is shown driving while reading, using the toilet while reading, and stealing money from his mother presumably so that he can consume the expensive wines he values almost as much as books as a source of intoxication. He was married to a woman now with a much more successful husband; he teaches English to schoolchildren immune to subtlety; and he has been writing a novel that keeps getting longer and more preposterous – a lot like life itself. He has not recovered from any of these disasters and believes, as good writers invariably do, that the sum of his failures can be transformed into a fantastic work of art, which is why writers often believe in redemption as strongly as other people of faith. The gaping chasm in Miles’s life is clearly structure, which explains his continued friendship with his former college roommate, Jack Cole (Thomas Hayden Church). 

Jack and Miles have plain, Anglo-Saxon names and in general act their parts well. They communicate through shared memories, not real-time emotions, and the bulk of their conversations involve agreement on the past. Jack is particularly parsimonious when it comes to sympathy or despair, as both of those sentiments could derail his perpetual mirth so handy in his profession as an actor. Now enough has been said about the perils of spending too much time with people paid to be something they are not. But Jack is a real person insofar as his emotions and thoughts suggest a teenage boy who has yet to fulfil his potential – this despite the fact that apart from some soap opera work, Jack’s “acting” consists mainly of voiceovers for commercials. Jack is the back-slapping polyanna that everyone needs from time to time, but who cannot be thought of as a sustained source of comfort. For that reason, when Jack decides to marry an Armenian-American heiress and go beforehand on a week-long bachelor junket through the California wine valley, the project appeals to Miles’s sense of both taste and camaraderie. 

Trips like these have three ostensible aims: debauchery in whatever form fate allows it to assume, reputation among one’s peers, and the rather nebulous activity known as “male bonding.” Jack gladly hands the car keys to Miles who, as a hard-core alcoholic with the vague semblance of a budget, knows the finest places to visit. It is then of small coincidence that the duo ends up in an establishment staffed by Maya (Virginia Madsen), a lovely single woman in her late thirties who, as a server with the vague semblance of a flirt, is the prototypical crush for any barfly. Jack and Miles discuss how nothing has ever happened between them and Jack sets himself the ambitious goal of getting Miles bedded before the week is up. This seems like a nice, best-buddy thing to do, especially considering the penury Miles has experienced since his divorce. But astute observers know that such gambits on the part of vapid lustmuffins such as Jack are usually doubled when applied to themselves. And Jack selects a vulnerable target in Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a single mother working as a pourer who happens to know Maya and is amenable to a harmless little double date. 

What happens on that date and the rest of the week may be inferred with little difficulty. Jack and Miles will imbibe until no iota of reality has been spared; Maya and Stephanie will become increasingly besotted in their own fashion; Miles will have his novel rejected and drown his constantly revived sorrows in the finest grapes that California can offer; and platitudes will be exchanged that gain in relevance as our heroes slip from sobriety. That said, the acting is superb and pleasantly meek (only one member of the quartet explodes, and for very good reason) and what could easily have devolved into hysteria given some poor choices is always restrained. Hayden Church breathes life into a very old mannequin, imbuing Jack with the sort of fragility usually reserved for, well, people like Miles. There will be numerous revelations along the way, a good indication that the film was originally a novel, but we already sense what these "secrets" will involve. The best secrets, you see, are the ones whose general outline you might have guessed but whose details are unexpected. Not unlike those fine wines stored on their sides to keep their corks moist.

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