Alexander Payne has made himself very hard to take seriously.
His first movie, Citizen Ruth, was a shrill witless farce about the abortion wars. His third, About Schmidt, was a lumbering yawner about its star, Jack Nicholson. And in between came Election, a trenchant black comedy about the perils of trying to be extremely normal. It's one of the most American movies since Nashville.
All of these works have been -- or tried to be -- satires, but only Election got it so perfectly right that it may have to last Payne a lifetime. His latest, Sideways, makes it all but official: Payne is a one-trick pony, a smug and self-absorbed filmmaker with a sentimental streak that couldn't be more conventional, no matter how hard he tries to give it an edge.
Sideways spends a week with two freshman-year college roommates now hovering around 40: Miles (Paul Giamatti), a sad-sack middle-school English teacher who's written a massive autobiographical novel that nobody will publish, and who's still depressed two years after his divorce; and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a former TV-series star who's engaged to the daughter of an Armenian-American businessman.
One week before the wedding, the guys take a trip through Southern California wine country, where Miles indulges his connoisseurship and stumbles through his courtship of Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress working on a master's degree in horticulture. Meanwhile, a pre-marital Jack has wild animal sex with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who works at a winery.
As far as I can tell, Miles is an oenophile for the sole purpose of permitting a dreadfully transparent metaphoric dialogue in which he and Maya discuss their passions for wine. Miles prefers pinot, a thin-skinned, temperamental grape that growers must coax into brilliance; Maya has a sharp palate and likes to imagine what went on in the year of a grape's vintage. Naturally, this fruity exchange (with a hint of berry and wood) leads to sex, and eventually Maya even loves and understands Miles' novel -- which sounds like a dreary exercise in postmodern psychotherapy.
At times Payne seems to want to deconstruct his morose comic narrative and act superior to it. But he's neither clever enough nor analytical enough, so most of his movie is embarrassingly banal, a catalogue of scenarios dressed up from college road-trip movies. When Miles chides the publishing industry for not taking a risk with his "difficult" book, you can feel Payne riffing on his own work, which I'm sure he believes is very offbeat.
There's hardly an authentic or funny moment in Sideways, unless you enjoy watching two blubbery working-class people screw and talk dirty. Yes, Payne sinks that low. Giamatti, a good actor, has a few tender moments; Church, a dimensionless one, has none. We're left with an awful exercise in what I think is supposed to be a decent man's odyssey of self-discovery, but which turns out to be, once again, just a Payne.
Starts Fri., Nov. 19.