Miles is your basic middle-age mope, a passive-aggressive depressive with a stalled life: He's got a failed marriage, a manic mother, a 750-page novel that no one will publish and a regrettable tendency to dial while drunk. "I've stopped caring," he intones, "to hell with it." Problem is, Miles does care, cares too much, and numbs out all that caring with Prozac and a nightly glass (okay, bottle) of some really fine wine from one of his many trips to Napa Valley.
This is the guy you see at cocktail parties, the one who carries on a little too long and a little too loudly about wine husbandry. ("Quaffable. But far from transcendent.") He's the guy who never gets the girl, or if he does he doesn't get her for very long, hence the drunken dialing.
Miles (Paul Giamatti, left) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) drown their sorrows in Napa Valley, where they drink wine and woo women.
(Merie W. Wallace -- AP)
"Sideways" may sound depressing, but it's far from bleak. Director Alexander Payne ("Election," "About Schmidt") manhandles well the terrain of the lonely loser. Humor wins over pathos, as in the scene in which Miles, on a heroic mission to retrieve his buddy's wallet from a suburban tract home of a married conquest, is chased out of the house by the woman's husband, a raging naked guy in a skullcap who slams his considerable paunch, naughty bits and all, against the car window. It's a choke-on-your-popcorn moment, and yet it never feels unbelievable.
Miles, as played by Paul Giamatti in the wonderfully understated film, is an Everynerd who started out with a semblance of promise and somehow got off track, oh, a decade or so ago. Giamatti's middle school English teacher can't seem to connect with anyone, let alone his students. His idea of a good time is retiring with a glass of pinot noir and the latest issue of Barely Legal. So it's a major stretch beyond his comfort zone when he agrees to go on a road trip with another loser, his college buddy, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a soap star who was once sorta famous but now is mostly known for his work in spray starch commercials. Jack's getting married in a week, an event he's approaching with the ambivalence unique to an aging pretty boy: He knows his skirt-chasing days are numbered, but he's still chasing.
So they drive up and around Napa Valley, squabbling, sucking back wine and wooing women. Jack thinks the answer to all Miles's problems is to be found in the sack: "You need to get your joint worked on," he tells him. Miles can't understand why Jack is obsessed with getting laid when he's getting married in a week. Eventually they take up with two women they encounter in wine country: Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a single mom a little too eager to anoint Jack with instant stepdaddyhood; and Maya (Virginia Madsen), a world-weary waitress/grad student who knows her way around a winery.
"The pinot grape," Miles tells Maya, "needs constant care and attention. . . . It's not a survivor."
Replies Maya: "A bottle of wine is constantly alive, evolving, until it peaks. Then it begins its decline."
They are, of course, talking about themselves, dancing the awkward two-step of courtship, baring bruised souls. It is a lovely moment until, that is, Miles breaks the spell. He wants this woman, but he's terrified.
Nothing much happens in this movie, and then everything happens. There's not a false note here, and the entire supporting cast -- Madsen, Oh, Church and Marylouise Burke as Miles's Mother -- is uniformly excellent. It rambles along at its own good-natured pace, playing both for laughs and for laments, stretching out a tad too long, but who cares, really? The film's a welcome ramble. Giamatti, as demonstrated in his attention-grabbing turn as comic-book writer Harvey Pekar in "American Splendor," is the master of mopes. His is a mug that registers heartbreak with a downward glance, an imperceptible shift in facial musculature. His Miles is a man whose life is defined by regret, a man who the audience keeps hoping will put down the wine glass and get to living.
Sideways (124 minutes, at Landmark Bethesda Row and Loews Georgetown) is rated R for profanity, sex scenes and nudity.