Few directors are as concerned about the middle as director Alexander Payne. He's not only focused on middle America, but also middle age, as he's proved in his three previous works: Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt. Sometimes it's not as readily apparent just how sympathetic he is about this formidable chunk of America -- there are moments in each of his films that feel downright nasty and condescending -- but you at least know that they are present in Payne's thoughts. Whether it's Matthew Broderick's frustrated schoolteacher focusing his anxieties on overachieving student Reese Witherspoon or Jack Nicholson's retired insurance salesman traveling across the country to lecture his daughter on a bad choice of husbands, Payne is a stickler for people who look everywhere but inward to fix their problems.
Miles and Jack, the buddies of Payne's fourth film, Sideways, are another offering of such folk. Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is a half-assed TV actor whose bread and butter is voiceover work. He's found a shot at happiness in the beautiful daughter of successful Armenian immigrants, who also want to bring him into the family business. So Jack has security riding on the line, as well, if he doesn't screw things up on the eve of the wedding.
Miles is a much tougher case to crack. Just knowing that he's being played by Paul Giamatti should tell you half of Miles' story; he's a not-always-loveable loser with a receding hairline, hollowed-out eyes setting off a hang-dog face and a loping gait that seems to teeter to one side -- the side of despair. And this is where Payne fixes the glare of his narrative: on a divorced, wannabe novelist, eighth-grade English teacher and consummate wine geek, whose very survival may hinge on a week-long getaway to California's wine country that serves as a bachelor party for this odd couple.
Sideways, like Payne's earlier works, is a witty and delightful comedy with more than its share of drama. It's the first film in recent memory that treats wine as a sweet metaphor for life, made most explicit during a clumsily romantic moment between Miles and Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress he's been reluctantly eyeing but can't bring himself to ask out. But because Jack is trying to sow the last of his wild oats, Miles has found himself on an on-again, off-again double date, and as Jack quickly woos wine pourer Stephanie (Sandra Oh), Miles tries to shake off his drunkenness and the recent news of his ex-wife's remarriage to share his fixation with Pinot Noir with Maya.
"Pinot is a hard grape to grow," Miles points out. "Pinot needs constant care and attention." Miles has been holding onto a 1961 Pinot Noir, waiting for the right moment. And Maya, knowing a good metaphor when she sees one, replies, "A bottle of wine is actually alive. It's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks -- like your '61 -- and begins its steady, inevitable decline."
Despite its complete lack of subtlety, it's a very sweet moment, and of course, Miles drops the ball and can't seize the moment. He's a loser. Nobody plays losers better than Giamatti, who deserved (but didn't get) an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. He just may score one here, even if there are times when you can't help but feel that the script, by Payne and collaborator Jim Taylor, fails him. Too often they rely on Giamatti's now-trademark self-loathing mannerisms to do most of the work for them. It's as if they're banking on sympathy without providing reasons to cheer him on. We have no idea if his prodigious rough draft of a novel -- currently at its umpteenth publisher -- is any good. We don't know about any real passion inside him beyond that of the grape. The potential inside Miles seems all but assumed, so you have to wonder what Maya sees in him beyond a good wine metaphor. (And let's not even get started on why someone as beautiful as Virginia Madsen, divorced waitress or not, would hang out with a Paul Giamatti.) Giamatti does his work well, and his chemistry with Church is a pure comic delight. They are virtual polar opposites who clearly see what they like and detest about themselves in the other. Jack has a carefree spirit that has always eluded Miles, just as Miles' sense of morality is a bit of wonder for Jack. Put them together, and you'd have one pretty cool dude. But you can't, and much of the film is spent watching Miles trying to dig himself out of his own middle-age hole while trying to keep Jack from falling into one, while Jack trys to get his buddy to lighten up and move on with his life. It's no shock why Payne cast Church, a waning TV actor (the pleasant sitcoms Wings and Ned and Stacey) who got his start doing voiceovers. As clueless and id-obsessed as Jack is, he's also an utterly charming teddy bear, and Church almost steals the movie from Giamatti.