Somehow I missed Alexander Payne's first feature, the 1996 "Citizen Ruth." I caught up with him in 1999 with his next film, "Election," from the novel by Tom Perrotta, which was a brilliant riff on a seemingly simple theme: A high school civics and government teacher, played by Matthew Broderick, sick of dealing with airheads all day, decides to put the most obnoxious student in the school - Reese Witherspoon - in her place by interfering with her run for Student Body President. But even as his plot is taking shape, Payne gives the film a 90-degree turn that not only casts doubt on Broderick's plan but gives us a whole new view of him. And then Payne takes us off in another direction, and another, each time deepening the film and sharing new insights into the unexpected consequences of simple actions. Which in this case are sad, touching, ironic.
With "Election" Payne hit the big time. His next film was the studio production of the Louis Begley novel "About Schmidt," which not only had a budget but a big star - Jack Nicholson. This time Payne misread the novel, or maybe threw it out in order to let Nicholson do standard Nicholson shtick, and ended up with a sad mess redeemed only in part by Hope Davis's beautiful performance as Schmidt's daughter.
Now, working from the novel "Sideways" by Rex Pickett (which may actually have been written from the screenplay), Payne tells the story of a zhlubby San Diego loser named Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) who takes his compulsively priapic friend Jack, a has-been television actor (Thomas Haden Church), on a week-long wine tasting trip to celebrate, in advance, Jack's upcoming wedding. The plan is to divide their time equally between playing golf and visiting wineries.
But Jack is incapable of going a week without sex, never mind that his wedding is scheduled for Saturday, and Miles is still pathologically longing for his ex-wife and incapable of making any kind of new relationship. The film is a day-by-day account of their week, in the course of which Jack meets Stephanie (the marvelous Sandra Oh), not bothering to tell her about his other plans, and Miles meets and keeps running away from Maya (Virginia Madsen).
It's a lovely setup for - well, that's the problem: It's the setup for a sitcom. Will Jack go back to his fiancée? Will Miles grow up, even a little bit, and see what Maya has to offer him? Tune in next week for another exciting episode. (The film is separated by intertitles announcing each new day.) A sitcom is not a movie, unless it serves to illuminate the movie's plot or characters. But "Sideways" has no perspective on its sitcom sensibility, and treats its characters as the cartoon figures they are. Giamatti, who was so good in "American Splendor," is maddeningly one-note here. Haden Church is actually much more interesting to watch on screen, simply because he's such a loose cannon. But the story never goes anywhere we couldn't foresee in the first ten minutes, and ends up a trivial piece of work.