There's nothing more hackneyed than comparing a person's meritorious traits to the qualities of . . . ah, a fine wine. Picture a gassed-out James Lipton look-alike waxing poetic to a bored young woman on a disastrous dinner date. And yet, almost miraculously, director Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt) and actor Paul Giamatti actually pull off a meaningful wine metaphor in Payne's newest film, Sideways. As Miles, a sad-sack neurotic wine connoisseur, Giamatti (American Splendor's suffering, nonconformist antihero Harvey Pekar) timidly explains to a luminous Virginia Madsen his passion for his favorite wine, pinot: "It's a hard grape to grow. It's thin-skinned, temperamental. It's not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention."
It's an obvious line, unambiguously reflecting Miles' character, but at the same time so painfully self-revelatory that you can't dismiss it as another dumb declaration of the aged grape. Nervous Miles is no windbag, no ostentatious cork-sniffer out to impress the ladies with his knowledge. He's just a guy who really digs wine. And as he expresses himself in this delicate moment, he's in turn articulating the spirit of the film: fragility amid the coarseness of life.
Adapted from Rex Pickett's novel of the same name, Sideways has two middle-aged friends taking a sort of last-fling road trip while in the middle of their own existential life crises. Miles is a balding, intelligent, ill-humored (though certainly humorous) eighth-grade English teacher and struggling novelist still stinging from a two-year-old divorce and sweating over a book he has reason to hope will be published. Jack (Wings' Thomas Haden Church) is a dippy, sweet, craggily handsome actor who's now doing commercials and voice-over work after his stint as a soap star 10 years prior. This mismatched pair were college roommates (which is funny to imagine) and have managed to remain friends into their 40s, in part because both have drifted offcourse, albeit in different directions. They also genuinely like each other. Jack is preparing to marry his wealthy girlfriend the following weekend, and to celebrate, Miles is driving him through wine country. As they wind through the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley and the less-beautiful towns of Solvang and Buellton, Miles casually attempts to show Jack the essentials of wine tasting. There's fun in watching these two enjoy their bibbing—Miles, so particular in his tastes, and Jack, greeting his first gulp with "Tastes pretty good to me."
But the trip isn't just for the wine. Jack has other plans. Intent upon shouting a last hurrah to singledom, the smarmy charmer is looking to get laid and wishes his exasperated hangdog friend would join in the pursuit. Stopping off in Los Olivos, they come to one of Miles' favorite spots, a restaurant called the Hitching Post, wherein works the lovely middle-aged waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen). Jack quickly senses she's "into" Miles and pushes his buddy to ask her out—a course of action Miles cannot begin to fathom. But then, when Jack gets involved with a sexy wine pourer (Sandra Oh) who just happens to be friends with Maya, Miles finds himself on the dreaded, if unexpectedly exciting, double date. Though Miles—hopped up on Xanax, Lexapro and way too much wine on top of it—reverts to type by dialing up his ex-wife halfway through the dinner, he manages to make it back to the table and remain conscious enough to begin falling for the soulful Maya. She, as it happens, is also getting over a messy divorce. Even better, she loves wine as much as Miles does.
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Before your mind starts drifting to movies like Sleepless in Seattle or the Nicholson-Keaton creaker Something's Gotta Give, know that Payne and co-scripter Jim Taylor have more than romance on their minds. Taking a step away from the quirky love story, Sideways, smartly and at times hilariously, keeps reverting back to Miles and Jack as they plow through more countryside, plunging into a number of personal sinkholes along the way. After picking up another girl—in this case, a fleshy waitress from a Sizzler-style restaurant—Jack tells an agitated Miles, "There are some things I have to do that you don't understand. You understand wine and literature and movies . . . but you don't understand my plight." What's so terrific about this moment is that Jack is being totally sincere and totally stupid all at once. And when his horndog proclivities—and perhaps more tellingly, his fear of commitment coupled with a colossal case of adult attention deficit disorder—lead to a chain of catastrophes and a mini mental breakdown, well, of course he had it coming. Like Miles, though, we can't help but feel his pain.
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A trenchant American satirist in his previous films, Payne moves in a different direction with Sideways—one less mordant but just as pointedly observant. As in About Schmidt, Payne is alert to both the beauty of the American landscape and the trashiness of American life. He understands the humor and unsightliness of chain restaurants and tract homes and can perfectly place the sort of citizen who would reside there. Like Schmidt, Payne lingers in spaces long enough for us to gather some clues about a character (think of Schmidt checking out his future son-in-law's bedroom with its wall of underachievement). In Sideways, you'll see Miles' mother bustling about her tacky condo in Oxnard, California, with its glass case of Hummel figurines (shades of About Schmidt), and, in the film's most disgustingly riotous scene, the trashed-out abode of Jack's illicit waitress, a place that looks like it was ransacked during a visit by TV's Cops. Like the easy-growing Cabernets and the common Merlots Miles so despises ("If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving!" he shouts before he and Jack meet up with their dinner dates), America expands with thick, hearty and mostly uninspired ugliness, while delicate people like Miles dwell along the fringes. Much like Steve Buscemi's put-upon record collector Seymour in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World, a guy who confesses the inability to relate to "98 percent of humanity," Miles hasn't given up entirely, but is so accustomed to failure that not a day is met without its bringing some kind of abject humiliation.
As with Jack, rather than simply laughing at Miles' tribulations, Payne and Giamatti flesh out the human being who's enduring them. Working off the talents of Haden Church and Madsen (whose steadying yet vulnerable presence is garnering much welcome-back buzz), Giamatti in particular takes us so far into Miles that we never see the freak-outs coming. Though perfectly twitchy and curmudgeonly, there's very little shtick to Giamatti's characterization: Miles is too layered and interesting and passionate to be merely pathetic. And while he may not have an actual cellar, he does have a stash of impressive vintages in the hall closet of his low-rent San Diego apartment.
When Miles crouches down on his hands and knees in the shag-carpeted hallway to pull a particular bottle from that closet, we're being set up for a subtle and emblematic instance of Alexander Payne's art, in which we discover, in a pensive, private moment of simultaneous heartbreak and personal triumph, there's more of real significance to this awkward guy and his obsessions than initially meets the eye. By simply living in the morass of daily existence while keeping his passions intact, Miles becomes, in the end, a kind of hero.
SIDEWAYS WAS DIRECTED BY ALEXANDER PAYNE; WRITTEN BY PAYNE AND JIM TAYLOR; PRODUCED BY MICHAEL LONDON; AND STARS PAUL GIAMATTI, THOMAS HADEN CHURCH, VIRGINIA MADSEN AND SANDRA OH. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS SOUTH COAST VILLAGE, SANTA ANA.