Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Buddy road movies invariably include carousing and male-centric monkeyshines. “Sideways,” the latest from “About Schmidt” director Alexander Payne, skimps on neither.

It’s the main reason the film will leave discriminating audiences smacking their lips. Who knew buddy films could be so observant, so raw, without ever feeling inflated or trite?

Mr. Payne stands at the peak of his powers in “Sideways,” aided by another powerhouse performance by Paul Giamatti.

The “American Splendor” star, a collection of lumps topped by rounded shoulders, is as unlikely a romantic foil as Hollywood can offer. The sight of him bumbling his way back into the singles scene is a warped valentine for the cinematic ages.

Between his work here and Jamie Foxx’s take on Ray Charles in this week’s “Ray,” two of the five Oscar Best Actor slots may already be filled.

Miles (Mr. Giamatti) and his longtime pal Jack (“Wings’” Thomas Haden Church) set off on a trek through California to celebrate Jack’s impending nuptials. Miles wants them to visit every winery within driving distance and sneak in a few rounds of golf in between.

Jack has other ideas. He’s got a few wild oats that need sowing, and he wants his pal to join him.

Miles, a hopeless oenophile, would rather stick his nose in the nearest wine glass than talk to a woman. He’s still crushed over his divorce (“she had the best palate of any woman I’ve ever known”) and dwells on the gloomy prospect that his latest novel will fail just like its predecessors.

Enter Stephanie (Sandra Oh) and Maya (Virginia Madsen), a pair of bright, wine-loving ladies the two hook up with mid-trip.

Jack has his last fling — and a bit more than he can handle — with Stephanie, while Miles can’t believe the lovely Maya could see him in a romantic way.

But she sure does, setting off a remarkable courtship sure to dazzle and frustrate.

Mr. Payne demonstrated a deft gift for comedy in “About Schmidt” (2002) and “Election” (1999), but what radiates so brightly in “Sideways” is how swiftly he establishes character and tone. A crucial dinner scene between his four leads is a masterpiece of economic storytelling. A glance here, an awkward smile there, and we’re right in the middle of the dinner party, as dizzy as if we’d downed one of Miles’ precious pinots.

A few of Mr. Payne’s comic set pieces approach slapstick perfection, but only because we’ve grown so close to the principals involved.

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael captures the luminescent California countryside but never in a way that distracts us.

A Mr. Payne film doesn’t have an ostentatious frame in it.

Wine serves as a robust metaphor for Miles’ suffering, yet the film never cheapens the messages it slips us.

Mr. Giamatti’s performance will gain the most attention here, but let’s not forget Mr. Church, a sitcom castaway who provides a vital counterpoint to Miles’ fussbudget manners. The actor’s rectangular features betray a middle-aged man fighting the commitment and sacrifice awaiting him.

“Sideways” secures both Mr. Payne’s status as an elite American director and Mr. Giamatti’s place as a leading man with the face of a character actor.


WHAT: “Sideways”

RATING: R (Male frontal nudity, sexual situations, mature language and themes)

CREDITS: Directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Mr. Payne and Jim Taylor. Based on the novel by Rex Pickett.

RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes



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