According to the Talmud, the grape is a fruit with the potential to become greater than itself. Alone, on the vine, it is a mere berry, that if left to its devices would shrivel in the sun and find its way into a tiny cardboard box. But with the assistance of man, and with the blessings of its creator, there is the bounty and sanctity of wine. Wine, which intoxicates, inspires, and exhilarates the spirit, and upon which we begin and end our holiest (and sometimes unholiest) of moments.
Without being patronizing or obvious, Alex (Election) Payne has crafted a beautiful and delicately humorous film utilizing the grape to wine metaphor, sometimes spelling it out, but more often letting the realization uncomfortably and disarmingly sink in (as Payne has become the master of this sleight of hand technique). Most independent directors will drift closer and closer to the mainstream as their successful independent careers progress (Cuaron, Nolan, Aronofsky to name a few), but Alex Payne, who may be the most "for real" out of the class seems to be a miraculous exception.
His stories are always simple in concept yet heavy in pathos and Sideways rings true. Here, two long time buddies, a struggling writer (Paul Giamatti) and an over the hill former soap star (Thomas Haden Church) hit the road to California's wine country in an effort to kick back for the final week before Church's wedding. The week is the movie, divided into seven segments, one for each day. What ensues is typical road trip madness. You know, trips to the hospital, sex with married strangers, and naked sprints through an ostrich farm – the usual. But with Payne at the wheel all these "entertainments" are purposeful in excavating real and important issues about men, women, and our desires to satisfy ourselves with and at the expense of each other – and of course the myth of love thrown in.
Throughout the trials befalling our pot bellied hero and his ignoble sidekick we are educated (thoroughly) in the virtues of wine tasting and wine making. Can we think of a more pretentious affair than wine tasting, with its obscene rituals and pompous lexicon? As we watch Giamatti stick his nose deep into wine glasses before drinking, swishing, and spitting, it is impossible not to question what inane lengths human beings go to in order to define themselves as cultured. We are forced to confront head on the meaning of it all, for our protagonists and for ourselves? Why do we spend that hour at night writing our novel? What is it with skimming over that Mendelssohn essay on the train? The piano lessons? "Who are we kidding" Sideways cries out? Let us be honest: human beings just want to bag someone hot! Perhaps it is the wiser of the species that confront this truth and surrender to it rather than pretend it is a weakness, a human frailty. Maybe instead of struggling through a chapter of Dostoevsky before bed, we should struggle through ten push-ups. That may get us closer to our real goal on this earth. Are we lofty creatures seeking to sustain our intellects or are we just instinctual animals who want the opposite sex to love us and crave us? Are we grapes or are we wine? Is it our business to appreciate over the course of our lives to become fine, aged wines or descend to the fate of the irresistibly tasty and attractive raisinet? This is the argument Sideways presents…and passionately argues both sides.
In one of the most complete performances of this year, Mr. Giamatti embodies this inner conflict. He is the man writing that novel, tasting that wine. He wants to be above it all – above the bestial emotions stirring in the heart, but again, where is the value in fooling oneself. Where is the value in intoxicating the mind with false hopes and beliefs – delusions of grandeur? Why be drunk all the time? He must come to terms with what it truly means to evolve. Are boys to be boys forever? Amidst the sophistication of wine country, Church and Giamatti can't manage to remove themselves from the petty, infantile machinations of the playground. The audience, or at least the men therein, can only sit and watch these two supposed adults attempt pitifully to define themselves. Speaking as a man, the seemingly ridiculous, irresponsible behavior of our buddies is entirely plausible. We are shallow bastards, and with all our transcendent aspirations, we are generally destined to succumb to our primal selves. The movie also splendidly utilizes the two distinct personas of Church and Giamatti to contrast the differences between the philosopher and the philistine. One convinces himself to believe in ideals in a world where ideals barely register, and the other appears superficially to succeed, to essentially get away with anything. Without a balance, however, both specimens are left incomplete and in despair. And that is why G-d created The Beatles.
ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE
In Payne's overarching triumph, Sideways is a sensitive, to the point of disturbing, expose of love – love that can blossom with that high school hallway sweetness even in the withered garden of midlife…all we need is the patience and commitment (and trust) to let the flower grow. Being an adult shouldn't mean an end to the beauty, mystery, and awes of childhood love (unless you are a married with kids lawyer living in the suburbs, but enough about my problems).
Beyond his storytelling brilliance, Payne also excels in style. He mixes 60's era sitcom quaintness, complete with an elevator music soundtrack and a montage in black boxes, with surreal violence and frighteningly accurate innuendo - a strangely poetic combination.
I would be neglectful if not mentioning that the object of our hero's precarious love is a luminous Virginia (Candyman) Madsen. She radiates a femininity that reminds mankind: resistance is futile. Despite any presumably higher calling, we will never withstand the charms of Lilith.
So is there happiness in the end for the mortal individual, with all his confusion and competing interests? Alex Payne, in his mercy, leaves room for such fanciful possibilities.