By Joe Lozito
Middle-aged to Perfection
No one does quivering-on-the-edge-of-depression quite like Paul Giamatti. As he proved in last year's equally wonderful "American Splendor", Mr. Giamatti has a gift for portraying familiar moments of everyman despair. Apparently Mr. Giamatti was surprised to be offered the role of Miles in "Sideways", writer-director Alexander Payne's charming, thoughtful paean to midlife crises. But Mr. Payne - on an incredible streak following "Election" and "About Schmidt" - shows he has as much of a gift for casting as he does for writing and directing.
Mr. Giamatti takes the character of Miles and makes us understand how he ended up where he is today - and why he's not happy about it. I don't want to give away any character moments because they are best experienced as Mr. Payne's well-crafted script lays them out. Mr. Payne finds a way to compose character development so that it feels organic - there are no surprise twists and turns, only moments and revelations.
Miles is taking his old college buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church, miles away from his character on "Wings") on a bachelor's wine-tasting week up the coast of California. Miles is hoping for a quiet week of wine appreciation and male bonding, but Jack has other ideas; he is looking to sow his oats one last time (or as he, an aging has-been soap actor, would put it: "to party").
What was to be a bachelor party for Jack becomes more of an awakening for Miles, who spends most of the time disapproving of Jack's behavior. That is, until, Jack prods Miles into talking to a waitress he has long admired. Virginia Madsen is nothing short of luminous as the waitress, Maya, a wine connoisseur herself with dreams of escaping her humdrum job. Meanwhile, Jack woos wild child Stephanie (Mr. Payne's wife Sandra Oh) and begins to rethink his wedding plans.
Wine tasting is an activity that is, by its very nature, pretentious, but Mr. Payne redeems his characters by making them so oblivious to the script's obvious metaphor. Take Miles, a character that can recognize the slightest hint of clove and passionfruit in the bouquet of his Pinot, and yet completely misses the beauty standing in front of him in the form of Maya.
"Sideways" is a film that doesn't get made much in the mainstream - a character piece masked as a road movie. Typically, road movies have to involve wacky mishaps and blunders, but Mr. Payne's movie feels like a real vacation with people you've known all your life. And like a fine wine, they get better with age.