Alexander Payne's "Sideways"--a boisterous, brilliant, heart-warming comedy about two aging college buddies and their last bachelor fling through California wine country--strikes me as just about perfect.
In the movie, Giamatti plays Miles Raymond, a morose, wordy English teacher, amateur wine gourmet and failed writer, licking wounds from a collapsed marriage and the universal rejection of his overly ambitious first novel. Church plays Miles' old San Diego State roommate, Jack Lopate, an obsessive womanizer and failed movie/stage actor with slightly gone-to-seed golden boy good looks, who has settled into a fourth-tier career of TV commercials and occasional soaps.
Both men are in their 40s. Jack is about to marry and Miles is recuperating from the loss of his long-time intellectual soulmate Victoria (Jessica Hecht). In celebration of the former and as relief from the latter, Miles proposes a last bachelor vacation: a tour of Santa Ynez, a green Pacific paradise of vineyards, wineries and upscale cafes, where they'll sample the wines, drink in the scenery and enjoy themselves--which, for Jack, has only one meaning.
Soon, despite Miles' fits of depression, sexual inadequacy and moody self-sabotage, buoyant gal-magnet Jack has managed to link them up with a pair of attractive, bright wine-waitress friends, Miles' old acquaintance Maya (Virginia Madsen) and her rambunctious chum Stephanie (played by Sandra Oh, Payne's real-life wife). The couples click, partly due to Jack's mastery of instant good times and sexual improvisation and partly through real chemistry.
But then comes the inevitable payoff--and the aging boys' dream vacation begins to turn into a wild, emotionally dangerous but oddly believable comedy of sexual errors.
Payne, who adapted Rex Pickett's original novel with his usual collaborator Jim Taylor, has mixed three genres with surpassing skill--the road movie, the relationship drama and the romantic comedy--while the screenwriters and novelist deliver a dead-on, consistently hilarious portrait of a certain classic attraction-of-opposites male friendship.
That friendship between Miles and Jack is so keenly observed and unfailingly well-drawn it may make you wince while you laugh: the seemingly unlikely bond, beloved by writers and filmmakers (mostly, but not entirely male) from Billy Wilder and Neil Simon to the Coen Brothers, between brainy nerd and narcissistic jock-stud.
Giamatti has a priceless spaniel pugnacity and terminal exasperation that convey here, as sharply as in "American Splendor," the real dilemma and comic anguish of an American intellectual/outsider. Church, in a career-altering performance, keeps us laughing or smiling constantly while making Jack the prototype of the aging California Casanova.
They make their characters come so thoroughly alive on screen because they and the writers, unabashedly, give us good and bad sides. We see Miles conning and robbing his mom and Jack manipulating nearly every half-plausible bedmate he meets. We also see their mutual sometime tenderness, generosity and humor.
Playing these parts, Giamatti and Church could not possibly be better. Nor could the small but keenly drawn ensemble around them: Madsen and Oh, swinging from exhilaration to exasperation as their female counterparts, Hecht as lost Victoria, Marylouise Burke as Miles' endlessly tolerant mother, and Missy Doty and MC Gainey as a grotesque Santa Ynez twosome who provide a last outrageous exclamation point to Jack's sexual high jinks.
I can't imagine many people not having a good time at "Sideways," and if they don't, they have my sympathy. The movie, my favorite from any American mainstream director so far this year, may be a bit like the vintage pinot noir Miles keeps seeking: It only seems like all the others. Once you find and uncork it, delight is guaranteed.
Directed by Alexander Payne; written by Payne Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Rex Pickett; photographed by Phedon Papamichael; edited by Kevin Tent; production designed by Jane Ann Stewart; music by Rolfe Kent; music supervisor Dondi Bastone; co-produced by George Parra; produced by Michael London, a Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:04. MPAA rating: R (language, nudity and sexuality).
Miles Raymond- -Paul Giamatti
Jack Lopate - Thomas Haden Church
Maya - Virginia Madsen
Stephanie - Sandra Oh
Miles' mother - Marylouise Burke
Victoria - Jessica Hecht
Cammi - Missy Doty
Cammi's husband - MC Gainey