Sideways, the new film from director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Election), uneasily vacillates between genres--it's unsure if it's a satire, a depressing mid-life crisis drama, or a date movie.
Paul Giamatti plays Miles, a would-be writer who accompanies his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a weeklong trip through California's wine country for a final bachelor's hurrah before Jack's upcoming wedding. While the week begins idyllically enough, glaring character flaws are soon revealed--wine connoisseur Miles' pedantic ranting about pinot gris hardly conceals his deep dissatisfaction with life, and Jack is an immature man-child determined to get laid one last time before tying the knot. So when they meet Maya and Stephanie (Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh), the two men construct new and improved identities to win them over--telling them that Miles has a book deal and neglecting to mention Jack's upcoming marriage.
Much of the film centers on Miles' awkward attempts to court Maya. The talented Giamatti, as expected, is great here; his Miles is generally unsympathetic, but provides occasional glimpses of a more lighthearted man untouched by the bitterness of divorce and failure.
Sideways' best scenes are those which capture the trajectory of drunkenness, from the initial cheerful haziness to staggering, reckless incoherence (Miles' drunk-dialing scene is dead on), but the film occasionally devolves into a bourgeois wet dream--as when the two couples laugh and picnic in the golden late-afternoon sunshine of wine country. Payne is at his best when he's mocking this kind of cliché, not appropriating it, and while Sideways is enjoyable, it's ultimately unsatisfying--we watch as Miles and Jack are stripped of all their illusions, but we never find out what they're replaced with.