Sideways is two hour tribute to drunk driving and friends who should all consider joining AA together. In it Jack, a voice-over advertisement actor, and Miles, the author of an unpublishable book, swing through California wine country. There they spend their time getting drunk and laid while trying to escape sordid reality -- Miles has just left a failed relationship with a controlling, belittling woman and Jack is about to enter one. The movie attempts to portray these two as realistic figures. The humor and pathos of the work is intended to emerge from the audience's sympathy and horror at their mid-life crises and their awkward attempts to make their ways through life. Miles in particular is supposed to have a certain every-man charm, as seen in the fact that he has an ordinary lifestyle with an ordinary job (as a middle school English teacher) and his relatively conservative approach to sexuality. Despite the fact that Miles and Jack are obviously meant to appeal to the audiences experience, they share a lifestyle which is far removed from middle America. The variety of lifestyles that exist in so-called "everyday life" --and especially everyday life in California -- are so wideranging that it is impossible to make any categorical statements about it. It is surely likely that people precisely like Jack and Miles exist somewhere, for their dialogue and antics seem quite human, if not quite normative. However, the screenwriter's perception of how normal people in America live is obvious a little skewed.
There are several ways in which Miles and Jack are atypical of normative Americans. Most Americans do not have the sort of money it requires to take a week off and go driving through wine country, staying at expensive resorts and drinking entire bottles of wine which may be over $100 a bottle (going rates on wine from vineyards in the Napa area appear to be from the low twenties to almost $300 a bottle). Being a wine aficiando is certainly a little out of the league of most Americans. Of course, the movie portrays it being a little much for Miles too. He steals a great deal of money from his mother to cover the trip. (I lost track of his theft at around $500) Of course, most Americans are as unlikely to thieve from their elderly mother on her birthday as they are to have a sophisticated taste for wine. From Miles behavior in this movie, one senses there may be a connection there.
Their upper-class pretensions are not the only things which set Miles and Jack apart from the ordinary red-state American. Jack has a very loose morality, which seems to think it is not only all right but even a good idea to spend the last week before a marriage in chasing after women of all stripes. He carries on a short love affair with a single mother and even makes her promises about moving out to join her, and when she violently dumps him he proceeds to commit a rather gruesome adultery with a woman whose husband appears to take great pleasure in catching them together and chasing him naked through the streets. Most Americans would not run naked through an ostrich farm, to say the least. Though divorce is on the rise, and premarital sex rates are very high, we are not living in an era where it is generally accepted that one should sleep with as many women as possible right before a wedding. Miles, at least, seems to recognize this. He at least has the grace to have known his date socially (if even just as a customer at the restaurant where she works) for some time before going to her bed. In this respect, Miles is far more normal than Jack.
Miles has his own oddities, however. He is deep in depression, and behaves in a rather melodramatic fashion. One assumes -- or at least hopes -- that the majority of Americans are not prone to walking into a wine-tasting session and dumping an entire spitoon of wine over their faces over a mere book rejection. He appears prone to "episodes," and is addicted not only to alcohol but also to Zanax. Despite the fact that our nation is increasingly medicated, it seems unlikely that the average American takes Zanax for their fits. Nor does one think that the majority of American men impulsively dial their ex-wives whenever they have a bit much to drink. Miles, on the other hand, seems to have made such a habit of this that his friend expects it of him should he disappear in the middle of a drinking binge. Once again, despite divorce rates and alcohol abuse rates, no one raised in a respectable home and neighborhood can consider such behavior normal.
Both Miles and Jack seem to have been scraped from the bottom of the barrel when it comes to the American populace. Their appearance on the screen interests because in them one can see everything that the majority of people are attempting not to become, and it is comic because of its subtle parody of normal life. Surely many Americans have considered having one last fling before getting married, or fantasized about making a spectacle of themselves in a moment of romantic self-loathing. The fact that society survives as well as it does is a tribute to the fact that most of us do not live up to these momentary daydreams about misbehavior.
While on the subject of how far removed these characters are from normative American experience, one ought to briefly mention the female characters in the story. To a very large degree they are mere stereotypes. Jack's wife Christine is really a non-figure in the story, though she is described as inhibited and controlling and likely to stop loving him merely for loosing their rings. She may be seen as the penultimate "rich bitch," part of the monied class that has no passion or imagination. Her fancy home, anal attention to details about the ring, and her way of keeping obsessive tabs on her husband all point to this conclusion. Jack's mistress Stephanie, on the other hand, fulfills the stereotype of a sex-hungry Asian woman. In some ways she is the most disturbing departure from normality in the piece because of the racist stereotypes that contribute to her character. She is an obviously bi-racial character and the only single parent in the story, whose sexual antics are described as being animalistic and "nasty." (That her child has a father of yet another race is worth mentioning as it contributes to the viewers imagination of her as a sexual animal) Despite being astonishingly beautiful and obviously intelligent, Stephanie is portrayed as ready to jump in bed even with a failed middle-age actor of sub-standard intelligence and charm who uses pick up lines on her like "you are a bad, bad girl..." And continually interrupts the wine-tasting process with borish and uninformed insights. This bit of fantasy plays disturbingly into the tendency for our culture to sexualize Asian women while downplaying their actual intelligence and taste. Stephanie is one of the few characters whose personal ambitions and experiences are not discussed. While Miles and Maya are out on the porch discussing the poetry of wine and their intense personal experiences with marriage and art, Stephanie is shown jumping in the sack with a man she's barely met. Despite her central role, she is probably the most marginalized character, whose intense personal charm is highlighted while her inner strength (raising a child and maintaining a job at an illustrious vineyard) are sidelined in lieu of her sex life. This view of women may, in fact, be normative in our society... But this actual sort of behavior is not.
Despite the flaws of its characterization go in the film's attempts to portray "everyday" Americans, it does do a good job of portraying the way close friendships work in many cases. Some of the best humor and most accurate social commentary in the film came in the friendship between Jack and Miles. Despite the fact that Jack is far from normal, there are certain elements of his personality that one commonly encounters among friends. He is that one friend that is slightly less inhibited than everyone else, and is constantly making michief. Most of us can sympathize with Miles trying to deal with a friend whose morals are a little below standard. Their friendship somehow persists despite the fact that Jack consistently blows Miles off, humiliates him, and even nearly causes him to loose his first chance at renewed love. Miles goes so far as to commit breaking-and-entering on Jack's behalf, because he doesn't want him to have to take the full consequences for his actions. One has to ask why Miles puts up with Jack, when Jack always gets him in trouble and comes to him to be bailed out when things go wrong. It is a question worth asking,…