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A Fine Whine

Film about lovable loser deserves an outpour of adulation

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The key scene in Sideways arrives when Miles (Paul Giamatti), a lovable loser who collects unhappy memories the way some people collect stamps, cuts through his own haze of despair long enough to open up to Maya (Virginia Madsen), who like Miles is a divorced individual with a great passion for wine. As Miles explains the reasons why he's so drawn to Pinot ("It's thin-skinned, temperamental... Pinot needs constant care and attention..."), it's obvious that he's also talking about himself. Such a speech isn't entirely unexpected -- in the context of this film, it's even desired -- yet what takes the sequence to the next level is when Maya gets her turn to talk. Moved by Miles' sincerity, she launches into a lovely monologue in which she links all wine to all people by pointing out its complexities, its ability to evolve... and its tendency to go downhill after it reaches its peak. And then she seductively adds the exclamation point -- "And it tastes so fucking good!" -- rolling out each word as if she were tasting every individual syllable.

That term of profane enthusiasm might also be an apt way to describe Sideways, an offbeat road movie that averages more memorable moments per mile than just about any other picture released this year. Movies in which characters hit the road in search of adventure and end up discovering themselves are nothing new to American film -- in fact, they're an integral part of our cinematic heritage -- yet this one is idiosyncratic enough to stand apart from the pack.

Miles, a chronically depressed high school teacher with an unpublished manuscript that hangs around his neck like an albatross, and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a has-been actor whose wedding to a society woman is a mere week away, decide to book pre-nuptial passage to California's Santa Ynez Valley -- oenophile Miles' goal is to introduce his boorish friend to the deeper pleasures of wine-tasting, while Jack's mission is simply to sow some wild oats before he gets hitched. Miles and Jack, college roommates from way back when, are as different as night and day -- or as Ray Charles and John Tesh -- yet they share some common ground once they both become interested in two of the local girls: Maya, a waitress (how wonderful to see the luminescent Madsen finally landing a role worthy of her talents!), and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wine pourer.

It's clear that both these men need someone to slap them silly -- Miles because of his habitual negativity, Jack because of his wandering pee-pee -- yet the Election/About Schmidt team of writer-director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor (adapting Rex Pickett's book) do a marvelous job of making these two so recognizably human in all their flawed glory that our hearts go out to them time and again. There's an inspired symmetry to the way these guys are allowed to play off each other -- we appreciate Miles' attempts to educate his friend, yet we also warm to Jack's ability to simply enjoy the world around him ("Tastes pretty good to me" is his analysis of every wine he chugs at tastings) -- and the uninhibited work by Giamatti and Church allows us to emphatically absorb every emotional gut-punch their characters receive.

The movie stalls briefly as it heads into its final turn, and the sudden disappearance of Maya and Stephanie from the storyline is a disappointment: These women are just as interesting as their male counterpoints, and a little more screen time would have served to intensify the dynamics between the characters even more. But these are minor quibbles: On the whole, Sideways displays an enormous generosity of spirit toward the sorts of characters who are often trivialized in modern American movies. And apropos with all the metaphors flying around the screen, it should be noted that the film itself should be approached like a fine wine: Uncork it, give it time to breathe, and then luxuriate in its rich, heady flavor.

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