Alexander Payne, a laureate of male inadequacy and regret, has made his finest and funniest movie yet in Sideways. His characters are distilled from a strain of Midwestern disaffection, be it Matthew Broderick's vengeful school teacher in Election or Jack Nicholson's emotionally constipated widower in About Schmidt, and leave traces of sourness on the palate. His new film also focuses upon midlife malcontents, but its setting, the sun-dappled vineyards of Santa Barbara, elicits an unexpectedly affable mood and perhaps even a sense of forgiveness towards his faltering anti-heroes.
Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a wine lover and would-be novelist still maundering over his wife's desertion two years before. His latest book, a family saga that sounds a bit like The Corrections, minus the wit and readability, is struggling to find a publisher. "I have stopped caring," he announces, meaning: I still care, desperately. For now, he intends to enjoy a week of wine-bibbing and golf with his old college buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a has-been TV actor who's getting married the next Saturday. The comedy and poignancy of Payne's film emerge in the different way these friends approach life, in what they fancy themselves to be, and in the eventual recognition of who they really are.
Miles wants to kick back and drink great wine. Jack, an inveterate skirt-chaser, wants to get laid, or rather "get his bones smooched" before he ties the knot, and he's damned if Miles is going to stop him.
Thick-haired and somewhat thick-headed, Jack has the faded good looks of a one-time playboy, and he's determined to exploit them before they disappear. Miles is shy, dumpy and froggy of face; while Paul Giamatti isn't quite the Peter Lorre de nos jours, he's endearingly odd-looking and conveys a lifetime of disappointment in the slouch of his shoulders. But he comes alive in the contemplation of wine, instructing Jack in the ways of the connoisseur and propounding the merits of Pinot, a "thin-skinned, temperamental" grape that only shows its best with delicate handling. Miles only half realises that he's actually talking about himself.
Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor, adapting from a novel by Rex Pickett, control the tone and pace beautifully, and have a terrific instinct for the character-revealing detail: I loved the image of Miles doing the New York Times crossword while tootling along the freeway in his battered Saab, and of Jack spraying deodorant on his feet after he's put his socks on.
Sideways catches the way long-term friendship seesaws between tenderness and exasperation. So while it's touching that Jack constantly tries to bolster Miles's fragile confidence, we see too how frustrating the latter's depressive tendencies might be. "No going to the dark side," Jack warns him before a double-date with a grad-student waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen) and her friend Stephanie (Sandra Oh).
Without much ado, Jack and Stephanie get down to smooching each other's bones, leaving the slow-burn of courtship to Miles and Maya. Giamatti locates a note of yearning in this sorrowful man that makes Maya, and us, root for his redemption. He's lost, but he's not a loser - not yet. There's a priceless moment when Miles, fearful yet hopeful, hands over the manuscript of his novel to Maya, who is quite unprepared for the two huge boxes of typescript. She has the good grace not to look aghast.
As the day of the wedding draws nearer, the film launches into a sublime cadenza of farce, mostly concerning Jack's amorous scrapes. Thomas Haden Church, an actor previously unknown to me, inhabits this compulsive lothario quite brilliantly; he allows us to see why he and Miles are still friends, yet also why, if they'd met at any other time than college, they'd probably loathe one other.
The film excels in this double vision, being at once undeceived about its characters and unembarrassed in its affection for them. Rolfe Kent's jazz score slides seamlessly between jaunty lilt and moody blues as Jack sheepishly returns to the nuptial fold and Miles finally uncorks his bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc.
I know it's a little early to be talking about "the best of 2005", so let's leave it at this: Sideways shows the hallmarks of a great vintage but should really be gulped down straight away.