Driving through the Santa Ynez Valley wine country over the weekend reminded me that I hadn't blogged about Sideways, which we'd heard much hype about, but hadn't seen until just the other week. My overall impression is that it was well done, but I don't think it rose to "Best Picture of the Year" worthiness. I'm not sure how much of it I'll remember many years from now, except possibly to laugh about the cultural influence it has had in attitudes about pinot noir and merlot. I thinking the acting was excellent. Paul Giamatti perfectly personified the neurotic author-poseur wine-snob, and Thomas Haden Church captured the immature actor on his bachelor party "final fling", while Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh were great as the two wine country women who the guys hook up with. The direction was impeccable, with Alexander Payne not only getting great performances out of his actors, but beautifully capturing the setting, the odd juxtaposition of beautiful central California oak-studded hillsides, cheap roadside motels, and the Danish kitsch of Solvang. Payne doesn't over-accentuate the kitsch (which as anyone who's read Susan Sontag's famous essay knows would puncture its delicate facade), but simply shows it and lets it speak for itself.
So where does this film fall short? That would be in this bizarre story, centered on two rather repulsive main characters, one of which has overslept, parked in a tow zone, told a few small lies to his best friend, and stolen money from his own mother all in the first ten minutes of the movie. And he's the better of the two. Perhaps I'm a bit old-fashioned that way, or perhaps it's my idealism, but I found the deep cynicism inherent in the story unpleasant to take. And what's with that ending? It was so non-sequitur. I can only imagine that the original story had Miles dump his novel in the trash just before slitting his wrists, but the Hollywood execs said no, no, no, we have to end it on a note of hope. Well here's what I hope: I hope that Maya slams the door in his face and avoids getting further mixed up with that loser poseur.
Perhaps what was most off-putting (even disturbing in the sort of way that sticks with me) was the notion that this movie might be a deeply cynical commentary on life in California. Is that the reality behind the California dream, where everyone is an actor and everyone's life is an act, a bunch of self-absorbed amoral people? When an outsider (think Woody Allen) ridicules California stereotypes, it's easy to laugh and shrug it off. But when one of our own becomes disillusioned (think Joan Didion), the cynicism of disillusionment can cut to the bone. This was definitely an inside job, by someone who's way too jaded for my tastes.