(R) 4 stars
Take two extremely talented character actors, put them together in a Mutt and Jeff partnership, give them an outstanding script by a hot director and you have Sideways, a perfectly wonderful film that mixes melancholy moments with riotously funny comedy. Director/co-writer Alexander Payne has crafted his best movie yet, leaving behind the glibness of Election and the smugness of About Schmidt. And he has given a showcase for Paul Giamatti (American Splendor) and Thomas Haden Church (the mechanic in the TV series Wings) that should make both of the gifted performers more bankable, thus balancing out the scales of justice, if only a little, in a world where Ben Affleck is a multimillionaire.
Miles (Giamatti) is a teacher and unsuccessful novelist still moping over his divorce of two years ago. His ex-college roommate Jack (Church) is a washed-up TV actor whose wedding is only a week away. Miles, a wine enthusiast obsessed with Pinot Noir (his explanation why serves as a nicely constructed metaphor), invites Jack to spend the week with him in the Santa Yuez Valley, touring the vineyards and lingering in the tasting rooms.
Early into the trip, the men meet Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress with a background in wine, and her friend Stephanie (Sandra Oh). After a fun evening, Jack takes off with Stephanie, leaving Miles with Maya, whom he knows - barely - from previous trips. Unfortunately, news that his ex has remarried leaves Miles so devastated that he can barely speak with Maya, a woman saddled with memories of her own divorce.
Giamatti and Church make an outstanding comic team. Miles longs to regale the erudite with his wisdom about wine and life, but he is too self-conscious, too fretful and too sad to pull it off. Using his priceless hangdog face, Giamatti wrings every bit of pain out of Miles, while treating the damaged man with tenderness. Jack is energy unbound, still the party animal even as he drifts into middle-age. He is engaged in part because he needs to be, but still can't quite let go of the hedonist lifestyle. Church nails the character, playing the fool in his own inimitable fashion, while using nuance to show that Jack is more than just horny antics. Though their roles are more reactive, at least until the latter part of the story, Madsen and Oh hold their own with the men with style.
There's not much more to say. Road movie. Melancholy and hilarity. Great script. Great cast. One of the year's best.