BROOKLYN — My wife and I don’t agree on too much these days (she’s still having trouble getting over the election), but we do try to accommodate each other, so last weekend I agreed to see a movie called Sideways.
The reason we were going is that Sideways had been heralded by all the reviews as a new departure in American film, already a dark horse to score at the Academy Awards. I told her this was enough to make me already suspicious, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what we encountered.
For ninety minutes we watched liberal culture unraveling itself. It’s the same feeling you get when Maureen Dowd says, “I’ve never said this out loud before, but I can’t stand Christmas.? If I hear ‘Frosty the Snowman’ one more time, I’ll rip his frozen face off.” You know Maureen Dowd hates Christmas only because there’s a big country out there full of people who enjoy Christmas but who Didn’t Vote for Kerry. Whatever they like, she must hate. Should we wait for her nervous breakdown? No, let’s just let Maureen work this out for herself.
Sideways, to get back to the point, is about a dorky guy who is the epitome of dorkdom. He’s paunchy, balding, middle-aged, unathletic, and divorced (he reminds me of Amory Lovins throughout) — but with one saving grace. He’s really, really, really, really smart about wines. Put him in front of a glass of wine and he becomes Mozart. He’s sensitive, articulate, wise, poetic — an aesthete of the highest order. For this we’re supposed to empathize with him.
Now no Don Quixote would be complete without his Sancho Panza and of course this Dorky Guy has one. We’ll call him “The Animal.” The Animal is a big, ruggedly handsome fellow who’s always on the lookout for some stray woman. The part is actually rather nicely conceived. The Animal is a former minor soap-opera star, well into middle age himself, but still vain about his accomplishments. He’s about to get married to an Armenian beauty in one of those how-the-hell-did-that-ever-happen Hollywood marriages. It’s a reasonably good plot line.
So they’re friends — former college roommates, in fact. And now they’re going to drive north for a week through Wine Country as an extended bachelor party for The Animal and a chance for Dorky Guy to forget his divorce.
WELL, YOU CAN IMAGINE what happens. The Animal is soon making passes at every store clerk while Dorky Guy lectures on bouquet and aroma and tries to keep everyone on the subject. The women are the only interesting characters. Sure they have that dubious movie-star-working-as-a-waitress quality, but they are full, rounded human beings.
In the film’s best scene, the beautiful waitress with whom The Animal has fixed up Dorky Guy gives him a nice, confessional account of herself, overloaded with romantic innuendo but nicely disguised as her personal experience with pinot noirs. It’s a language The Dork can surely understand. In any romantic comedy since the Renaissance, he would pick up the metaphor, extend it, and they would be off to the races. Here, however, he is completely inert, not even seeming to comprehend that she’s making a play for him. That’s the end of it.
Finally The Animal gets himself in too deep. He is surprised by a cuckolded husband while spending the night with an overweight waitress. Fleeing the house, he leaves behind his wallet, which contains an irreplaceable ring he is supposed to present his fiancé®
Suddenly, The Animal is crying. “I’ve got to get that ring back,” he wails. “I’ve screwed up everything I’ve ever done in my life. I can’t screw up this marriage.” It’s a startling intrusion — raw human emotion in the midst of all this lowball comedy. (The part is very well played by Thomas Hayden Church.) But here’s the amazing thing. In my neighborhood of Park Slope, where 99 percent of the population is liberal, people started laughing. They couldn’t get over the stereotypes. Look, an Animal trying to show human emotion — isn’t that funny?
FROM THERE, IT WAS back to low, low comedy. The Dorky Guy rescues the ring, the overweight husband ends up chasing them down the street stark naked — well, you know the rest. Of course the Dorky Guy eventually wakes up and goes back to see the waitress, but the point is made — we’re in the Land of Oafs.
Even my wife thought this movie was shallow and trivial. Yet amazingly, Sideways is being hailed as the dawn of a new American cinema. Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Lynn Hirschberg carped for 3,000 words about how American cinema no longer represents reality — but exempted Sideways because it is “essentially a foreign film made in America.” People wrote in objecting — not that American cinema doesn’t do anything worthwhile but that Sideways is an American movie so why shouldn’t that count, too? And of course Sideways just swept the Golden Globes, winning seven nominations, including Best Picture.
My only question coming out of the theater was, “Why is this guy even interesting as a leading character?” The answer is simple. This is the way liberal America sees the world. Men are dorks or animals (dorks, preferably — you know this guy weeps over rainforests), while women are intelligent, sensitive, rounded human beings.
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