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. "Sideways"

[SPOILER WARNING]

Losers are paying off at the boxoffice these days. William H. Macy doesn't do so badly portraying them ("The Cooler"), Jack Nicholson affected that level in "About Schmidt", and Paul Giamatti fared pretty well as one (with talent) in his previous surprise hit, "American Splendor." Now, director-cowriter Alexander Payne (with Jim Taylor), who did "About Schmidt" picks up on the Giamatti self-absorbed personality given to depresseion, and envelops him into a buddy-road wine country adventure.

These buddies are not, however, cut from the same cloth. There's an impression that Miles Raymond (Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church, "The Badge") are tight friends for the convenience of the story. Miles is an English teacher with an unpublished manuscript and a recessive type whose sense of accomplishment is satisfied with the seduction of a good bottle of wine. Mostly all he wants to do is commiserate over one while moaning over his failed marriage.

Jack doesn't shy away from a glass, himself, but his fun is of a more pysical variety. He's a voice-over actor in commercials, which is a level of success, and this smooth-talking, good-looking operator has just become engaged to a wealthy, attractive woman. So, a trip up the California coast to Napa Valley and environs for a last fling with his pal is just the right blend to ward off fears of marriage constraints.

Of these 40-year old mismatched adventurers, Miles is a high-brow with a considerable knowledge of the grape and a special passion for his favorite (Referring to Pinot, he effuses, "It's thin-skinned, temperamental... needs constant care and attention..."). Jack, the other traveler, is of an eathier variety, smug, seeking satisfaction along more physical lines. His idea of fun is to score a little "action."

Which is not to say that Jack's influence might not open Miles up a bit, and make him at least receptive to the companionship of a lady. So, after meeting an old friend of Miles', single waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen), at the Hitching Post restaurant in Solvang where she works, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who works in a winery tasting room, Jack is ready to put all the sipping and sampling aside for some needed partying. Against all of Miles preferences and inclinations, Jack puts together a foursome.

After many pleasant wine-filled hours of foreplay, Stephanie and Jack get it on, with his declaring his love for her and desire to open up a winery, etc., etc., and she's falling for it. Meanwhile Miles is pulling his usual socially retarded act on a very patient Maya who is a match for his wine metaphors. "I like how wine evolves, like if I opened a bottle of wine today, it would taste different than every other day," she says, adding, "once you open a bottle, "it begins its steady, inevitable decline." Love is apparently in bloom here as she sees something in him despite his lack of confidence -- which borders on debilitating. With the temperament of a winegrower, her interest remains as sincere and constant as it might with a slowly maturing grape.

She doesn't give up on him until he accidentally tips her about the wedding on Saturday. Wedding on Saturday? Uh oh. Things that were going on in their calmly deceptive way are suddenly overturned. Stephanie rages and Maya quietly withdraws. But that's not the end of it, and how it resolves explains, in large part, how a story about two guys you're challenged to care about make it through with performances that are putting Hollywoood award buzz into entertainment headlines.

All performances and personalities fit neatly into Payne's scenario with Oh's playful sexuality and Madsen's break from her edgy bad girl into a model of exemplary character worthy of note. Madsen's the one I'd invite to dinner, Solvang, Napa or West Hollywood. Giamatti is virtuosic in the fidgets of the lonely and withdrawn as well as in the classic fussiness over wine varietals. Above all, if you don't quite admire him, you at least feel comfortable with his unchallenging personality.

Frankly, I don't know how director Payne does it, but his formula of bringing out popularly hailed qualities in an apparent loser has worked again. His film is also a splendid promotion for knowledgeable wine drinking as well as a major contender for Academy Award honors due in large part to an adverising campaign that must have cost more than the production itself.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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