This Year's Vintage: SIDEWAYS

Viewers who have come to admire director Alexander Payne as a modern-day Preston Sturges might find SIDEWAYS surprising. Continuing in the vein of his last film, ABOUT SCHMIDT (minus that film's condescending humor), this one moves even further away from the social commentary-gone-screwball of CITIZEN RUTH and ELECTION (not to mention Omaha), and into deeper, more introspective terrain.

What I find refreshing about SIDEWAYS is how it sidesteps (ha-ha) the whole high concept route. This isn't about how to lose a guy or gal in ten days, swapping partners, or any of that star-studded studio nonsense that has little connection or resemblance to anyone's life. This is simply an honest, bittersweet, sometimes acerbic and occasionally laugh-out-loud road trip tale.

Friends since college, fortysomething Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) drive up to Californian wine country for a week-long getaway before the latter's impending marriage. They're slightly mismatched: the tortured, self-deprecating Miles is an English teacher, struggling author and wine-aficionado reeling from a recent painful divorce, while aging actor Jack is more like Spicoli from FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH twenty years later--laid-back and a little naive, Jack's a wine philistine who's adamantly focused on getting laid one last time before his nuptials.

Not long after reaching their destination, Jack meets Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a self-assured, spunky single mother who works at a vineyard. They settle into an impulsive affair, and set up Miles with her friend Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress Miles has admired from a distance on previous trips to the area. There's a lengthy, beautifully-executed scene where Miles and Maya intimately talk to each other about their unusual passion for wine, but it may as well be about the way they see their own lives, and things they see in each other that they cannot yet articulate.

The cast is solid: Giamatti matches his great performance from AMERICAN SPLENDOR, and Church, primarily known for his TV work from a decade ago, finally has a script worthy of his comic talent. Oh is delightful as ever, and Madsen overcomes the potential blandness of the film's trickiest, subtlest role (the desired ingenue) enough to mesh well with her louder, more flamboyant co-stars.

Given all the glowing reviews SIDEWAYS has already received, I approached it skeptically, and spent the first half wondering, "OK, what's so great about this one?" But be patient--it's the more the film's cumulative pull that's affecting than individual if memorable moments. Despite Miles acting like an adolescent on occasion, this is really a movie for adults. My friend Diane's comment that you "have to have been around the block a few times" for the film to resonate is spot-on, but I'll also say the last twenty minutes is where it earns all of its glowing reviews. The conclusion, although not as perfectly open-ended as BEFORE SUNSET, nearly flirts with sentimentality only to come to its senses and offer up something to chew on, or in this film's case, sip up.