January 2005

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

A Good Vintage From a Bad Year: Sideways

2004 hasn't been a particularly good year for movies, according to most people. The eagerly awaited opuses by proven directors have paled in comparison to earlier efforts, the acting showcases aren't so much movies as they are awards reels, and event films which were supposed to delight millions have opened to halfhearted shrugs. So this is one of those strange, fun years when the small films -- the character dramas, the understated biopics, the stories told on a scale less than operatic -- are attracting a good deal more attention than usual, and it'll be no surprise to the handicappers if Sideways, a slight little film about love, life, and good wine, is nominated for Best Picture this year.Though, six months ago, you couldn't have seen it coming.

Sideways focuses on two men on a week-long bachelor sendoff -- Miles, the oenophile whose lifestyle way exceeds his unpublished writer/schoolteacher means, and washed-up actor Jack, whose impending marriage has made him desperate for one last wild time. During their adventure in the San Ynez Valley, they play golf, drink wine, and dine upon the local cuisine, all while hitting personal lows and seeing a glimpse of all-time highs.

Slow and carefully paced, it's the rare movie that manages to hit all the right notes, never being too forgiving of its characters' faults. But what's really remarkable about Sideways, though, is the elegance of its adaptation.

Rex Pickett's novel seems a lot denser than it actually is -- bearing pretty much the same weight of narrative, it does so with a great many more pages than seem necessary. I'm writing this a few days after having finished the book, and this is a problem because little of it has made the impact that the movie did, despite the fact that the events in both are pretty much identical. Large chunks of the film, right down to "I am not drinking any fucking merlot!", have been lifted intact from the text; except for big changes to the Sandra Oh character and a few significant plot alterations, the movie remains true to the book. But more concise, subtler, honest -- sharper. Better! Such a marvelous thing.

This can be credited to two things -- the close involvement of the author throughout the filmmaking process (he even credits the screenwriters thoroughly in the acknowledgments, fitting given that their interest in adapting what was then an unsold manuscript led to it eventually being published) and the peculiar genius of Alexander Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor for seeing the potential in small books that somehow transform into great little movies.

Having previously performed similar magic with Election and About Schmidt, Payne and Taylor manage to stay true to the intent of Pickett's words while finding ways to bring forth the full potential of the drama. Little moments, small changes from book to film, really stand out for me here. For example, Jack's wooing of Terra in the book is a little sleazy, but in the film it comes off as downright ghastly -- because Terra is now single mother Stephanie, and Jack is full of fatherly cuddles for Stephanie's young daughter, making his false promises to Stephanie even more disingenuous. Meanwhile, Miles's unopened bottle of the 1961 Cheval Blanc, an expensive vintage on the verge of over-ripening, is one in a long line of bottles emptied over the course of the book. But in the film, it's a character milestone, a great moment indicative of epic change (on a small scale). And although there's nothing glamorous in the book about Jack's pickup of Cammi, an overweight chain restaurant waitress, it stands out as a true moment of desperation in the movie when Jack is forced to use his former status as a soap opera actor to score her.

Really, there's an awful lot to admire in the improvements that the film makes over the novel. But maybe it comes down to something as simple as this: Miles, after finding out about the failure of his book to sell, throws a fit in a touristy tasting bar that cumulates in him tipping the spit bucket over his head, drenching his blue shirt with red wine and god knows what else. For the scenes following, Miles continues to wear the shirt, a visual reminder of his failure -- an ever-present externalization of how low he's sunk. It's something you could never get from the book without regular reminders dropped into the action, but in film it's wordless, silent, and more poignant for it.

It's not that Pickett's novel is without value, but in a story so dependent on the characters and their interactions, the improvements implemented in Payne and Taylor's screenplay transform a slight novel into a film with resounding impact. It's movies like Sideways that remind me of how valuable, how necessary film can be -- because sometimes, it seems that there are stories, big or small, that were never meant to be novels.

Sideways by Rex Pickett
St. Martin's Griffin
ISBN: 0312324669
368 Pages