Surviving When Life Squeezes Us Sideways

The movie Sideways, winner of an Oscar and two Golden Globes this year, leaves viewers laughing so hard they cry. Some of the tears flow because Sideways conjures up the times when life pinches us. When we feel trapped. Losers.

We describe such moments in different ways. We say we are spinning our wheels. We sigh that we are stuck in a rut. We feel like a square peg in a round hole or, in an antique expression, like we “are at sixes and sevens.” Life doesn’t add up the way we prefer. We are fit to be tied. We feel as if we are turned sideways.

One charming feature of Sideways is that the scriptwriter loves its lead characters, faults and all. Craggy-faced cowpoke Jack Lopate and his sidekick Miles, an author whom publishers have spurned, are out on a weeklong wine-tasting fling in California’s vineyards. Lopate is to get hitched at trip’s end but meanwhile, like a mangy tomcat, he is on the prowl for whatever babe he can bed. Even so, he faithfully telephones his fiancée, telling her in lovey-dovey chitchat that she is the flashiest jewel in his crown.

Viewers might fault the movie for a cavalier rejection of morality or see it only as a funny trip of “likeable doofuses” (People Magazine). That misses the sadness beneath the fun. When the camera pans those immaculate vineyards in California’s wine country, vibrant color does not flash up on the screen. The camera constantly overexposes the countryside. Its vitality is sapped. Overexposure serves as an excellent metaphor here. Miles and Jack, together with the two women they meet, are tangled in a search that sends them to one more drink, one more vacant sexual tryst, one more day of trite motion minus meaningful action.

Not all is lost, however. Watch for the knock at the door just before the credits run on the big screen. Then we see glorious colorful hues. There’s no more overexposure. Miles no longer dwells on whining about why he has screwed up his life. He finds a woman in whom he can confide. Life offers him an unexpected grace note in an otherwise pedestrian score.

The verbal dramas Christ spun are not unlike the theme of this movie. Luke records three of them in rapid-fire succession. Jesus tells the story of a shepherd who leaves the ninety-and-nine sheep to find the one lost on a ledge. He tells of a woman who housecleans and discovers a treasured coin that had slipped through cracks in the floor. Most familiarly, he pictures a father with two sons, both lost. One discovered he was lost, not in California’s wine country but in a pigpen. His older brother suffered even more grievous estrangement. He never knew he was lost. Like Jack on the telephone with his bride, the older brother sounded self-assured. But he was spinning sideways and couldn’t admit it.

Jesus comes to us to “seek and save those who are lost.” We don’t really listen to his stories if we assume we know them well. Sideways helps by presenting a cinematic update of the Prodigal Sons. It shows four lost souls who go into the far country, squandering themselves in loose living. They drink it up, sex it up, and drug it up for the laughs to fend off the sadness pervading their lives.

Like Jack and Miles, we slip sideways, feeling out of sorts. We try to hide our secret crevices from others, but we cannot camouflage them from God. He finds us when we are lost and then graces us with the gumption to knock on a door.

Jack R. Van Ens is director of Creative Growth Ministries in Arvada, Colorado.