(R). A prenuptial road trip turns into a black comedy of the soul for a wine connoisseur-novelist-malcontent. Superb, all around. With Paul Giamatti, Virginia Madsen, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh. Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, from the novel by Rex Pickett. Directed by Alexander Payne. 2:04 (sex, nudity, vulgarity). At area theaters.
"Sideways" may fetch Paul Giamatti that best actor Oscar of which he was robbed (or so many thought) for "American Splendor." On the other hand, based on past experience, "Sideways" is far too smart for the Academy Awards. Giamatti may have to settle for being complex, hilarious, misanthropic and brilliant.
And while we're overusing that much-overused word, you have to wonder just how smart Alexander Payne and his screenwriting partner, Jim Taylor, are -- geniuses, I think, at least in the art of Hollywood. Imagine them pitching their film to studio execs:
"OK, here's the deal: Two guys -- one a hunky ex-actor, the other unlucky at love -- hit the highways north of Los Angeles for a week of fine wine, beautiful women, sex, sloth, golf and self-discovery, all in anticipation of the actor's wedding... ."
Imagine the execs' eyes lighting up: Keanu Reeves! Aston Kutcher! Babes! Bikinis!
But, no. Giamatti, the biggest shlemiel of an actor in current circulation (now that Arnold Stang is semi-retired), is Miles Raymond, would-be novelist, obsessive pinot noir-ophile and unhappy ex-husband. Somehow, he has signed on to escort his old buddy Jack Lopate (a beautifully broken Thomas Haden Church) on a last-ditch effort at arrested adolescence: a one-week car cruise up the California coast in search of (in Miles' case) good red wine and (in Jack's case) sex. Because Jack is getting married. And Miles has nothing else to do.
After "Citizen Ruth," "Election" and "About Schmidt," Payne has proved himself a director with little to prove; at the very least, he is the most consistent American director working and, at best, one of the most extraordinarily insightful, especially about the male condition (even "Citizen Ruth," because it involved the abortion debate, was largely about male territoriality). You're always surprised he and Taylor can get all this on screen. But it's partly subterfuge.
Is a road movie a road movie if the road suggests limits rather than freedom? Is a buddy movie a buddy movie if the buddies are so incompatible? Jack's behavior constantly violates Miles' sense of decency and morality, especially as regards Jack's fiancee. But, then, Miles would be less judgmental if he were being more sexually successful, but he can't manage to help himself, even when the answer to his problems is staring him in the face.
Virginia Madsen. Remember her? I suppose she's been working, but it must have been at low altitudes. Here, however, as Maya, the wine-waitress-would-be-horticulturist, she is warm, sexy and smart -- one notable scene, in which she displays a knowledge and feeling about wine that matches Miles' own, is about as perfectly passionate a moment as a film is likely to contain this year.
Together, the film's quartet -- which includes a sparkling Sandra Oh as Jack's honey du jour -- gives a tour de force collective performance. But it's really Giamatti's movie. One of the Payne-Taylor team's great gifts is being able to compose the near-miss joke, the almost-funny line and no one could bring them off quite like Giamatti, who speaks about wine in the most pretentious terms but makes it all sound like poetry, simply because it's sincere -- as is "Sideways," a perfectly turned title for a movie about the way so many people approach their happiness.