It would be easy to write that Alexander Payne’s new comedy “Sideways” is the most realistic movie about middle-class Caucasian life in America ever made. After all, the characters who populate the pastel washes of its frames are honest-to-God everyday people who feel and think like we do. It takes almost no effort to admire Payne for his uncompromising ideals, for making a movie that removes anything outlandish from its premises. But in the actual theater, faced with the film itself, it takes an enormous effort of will not to spend more time looking at a wristwatch than the screen. The “real” isn’t necessarily the interesting — and “Sideways,” outside of a few scenes, is just plain boring.
In lieu of a bachelor party, Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti ’89 DRA ’94 of “American Splendor” fame) takes his soon-to-be-married buddy, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), on a weeklong trip to the wineries of California. Although Miles is an expert taster, Jack could care less about wine, and he quickly starts chasing after a hot bartender, Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Miles, depressed after a recent divorce and the failure of his novel, disapproves and mopes about until Jack forces him to go on a date with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a smart waitress that has had her eye on him for some time.
Told without twist or quirk, the story is far from engaging, and the shallow scope of the locations — ranging from golf courses to wineries — does little to improve the situation. To liven things up, Payne employs one major metaphor; wine holds the secret to explaining human beings, in addition to serving as Miles’ intoxicant of choice.
A person, it seems, is a complex blend of subtle flavors that peaks at some point and then declines. “Sideways” practically forces this comparison. Even the title refers to the tipping of a wineglass to study color and individual particles in the aromatic liquid.
The problem is that Miles does not reveal anything deep or interesting even after two hours of gazing at his depressed veneer. Dumpy and uptight, he is at once sympathetic and frustrating. Giamatti portrays Miles’s indecision and feelings of self-loathing with such strength that his failure to convey what makes the character a worthwhile man is all the more evident. Miles never becomes the draw that he could be, because we are not allowed in.
In only a few scenes does Payne manage to make a connection with the audience, largely with the help of his talented cast. The best acting comes from Church, who, coated in the false orange glow of a Hasselhoff tan, makes the perfect washed-up TV star. His vacant, sincere stares serve as counterpoint to Miles’s humorless bitterness.
When the two men are mixed with the two ladies on their first double-date, Payne really does a great job illustrating the uncomfortable give-and-take of new relationships. His penchant for picking up on cultural phrases, things we say to each other just to fill the silence, and pointing out their stupidity, is on full display in this mating dance. Yet for a film about bringing relationships to fruition, there is surprisingly little insight into Maya, who remains puzzlingly uninteresting while working her magic on Miles.
It is more the idea of Payne’s film than the actual film itself that makes “Sideways” such a critical hit. “Sideways” is so unlike Hollywood fare that critics, eager to sound arty and “alternative,” love it. In addition, Payne’s shifty wine metaphor gives him a shield to deflect any criticism: only someone with an unsophisticated palate, who could not see into the rich characters, would dislike his movie.
Interestingly, Payne does not deceive himself, but courageously parodies the problems with his script in the film itself. It is easy to see the implicit connection between Miles’s book, which is deep, truthful and entirely unmarketable, and “Sideways.” Payne’s filmmaking style has the potential to produce something wonderful. But putting out a film that will mostly appeal only to critics, an unmarketable film, is unfair to a public who has seen something great in “Election” and “About Schmidt” that is deeply wanting here: imagination.