Alternately irritable and irritating, the paunchy, balding Paul Giamatti is so spirited in his distress and so recognizably human in his attributes that he bids to define a genre. There’s Storytelling (in which he played a wheedling indie filmmaker), American Splendor (wherein his “Harvey Pekar” seemed more authentic than the real Pekar), and now Alexander Payne’s superbly directed Sideways.
Payne’s ferocious critic- (and perhaps crowd-) pleaser stars über-nebbish Giamatti as a depressed eighth-grade teacher and failed novelist, still brooding over the wife who dumped him. Miles is also the world’s whiniest oenophile, who treats his skirt-chasing soon-to-be-married best friend to a week-long vineyard tour through Southern California’s Santa Ynez Valley. This excellent adventure affords a hilarious and excruciating bout of bachelor bonding, with Giamatti’s self-loathing Miles acting off the monstrously self-absorbed Jack. A minor TV personality with the tousled locks and ruddy hide of an overcooked beach bum, Jack is played by sometime TV actor Thomas Haden Church, who comes very close to stealing the movie.
The adventure begins inauspiciously with a detour to wish Miles’s mother a happy birthday. (Turns out she’s a garrulous floozy.) Things grow increasingly fraught once it becomes clear that, whatever Miles’s fantasy might be, Jack’s agenda is to get laid. Adapted from (and improving on) Rex Pickett’s novel, Sideways is thus a cross between a three-legged sack race and a pedant’s bacchanal. While Jack is cheerfully tasteless, Miles is a ferocious snob. Among other things, the movie should consign merlot to the bargain rack while, thanks to Miles’s showstopping disquisition, sending pinot noir orders through the roof.
Delivered to a sweet-natured waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen), Miles’s paean is filled with pathos. But much of the comedy here is beyond poignant—it’s painful. “Did you drink and dial?” Jack asks when Miles interrupts a double date with Maya and sassy pourer Stephanie (Sandra Oh) to call his ex-wife. Payne stops short of outing Miles as a hapless lush, but he does include one harrowing scene involving a vineyard slush bucket.
Payne’s movies have been distinguished by their indelible characters: Laura Dern’s Citizen Ruth, Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick, Jack Nicholson’s Schmidt. Maya and Stephanie are vivid, fetching abstractions; Jack and Miles are male archetypes, as well as the two most fully realized comic creations in recent American movies.