As someone who frequently contemplates the pros and cons of alcohol consumption, I've wondered why no one ever talks about out-of-control epicureans—why Alcoholics Anonymous people (at least in my circles) never tell horror stories of self-destructive Chateauneuf du Pape obsessions or ridiculous 150-mile trips to taste some acclaimed brewpub India pale ale or rent monies blown on bottles of 25-year-old Springbank. I admit that doesn't sound as nightmarish as, say, waking up from a three-day blackout on a rooftop, naked, covered in vomit, with a needle sticking out of one arm and two cops pointing guns. But there is a class of addicts (and not always privileged ones) for whom the epicurean drive is closely allied with the drive to self-medicate. Epicures go sideways, too, big time.
Which brings us to Alexander Payne's Sideways (Fox Searchlight), a warm, ingratiating, and fitfully hilarious epicurean road movie with a steady ache—an ache like a red-wine hangover. It's about two guys, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), who take a wine-tasting road trip the week before Jack's wedding. Closely adapted (by Payne and his partner Jim Taylor) from a novel by Los Angeles screenwriter Rex Pickett, it's like a gonzo teen sex comedy smacked upside the head by encroaching middle age and its attendant insults: bleariness, self-hatred, bodies and minds that don't recover as quickly (or at all) from relentless self-abuse, and the unshakable sense that, as Shakespeare's Richard II puts it, "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me." And yet, even here, there are moments of blissful connectedness: fleeting ones, somewhere around the second glass of that single-vineyard central coast pinot, opposite someone sympathetic—moments when the wine helps to stop time, soften anxiety, and open up a new world of hope.
It's Miles who's the oenophile—and the alcoholic. Recently divorced, still carrying a torch for his ex-wife, and with an unwieldy novel making the rounds of ever-smaller publishing houses, Miles has channeled a lot of his longing in the direction of pinot noir. For him, it's not about getting blotto (or, I should say, going sideways). It's about tasting the latest vintage. It's about sticking his nose in the glass, smiling at the voluptuous aroma, sipping, chewing, taking apart the flavor components, and mulling over the finish. It's about holding forth pedantically until his table mates' eyes glaze over. ("Citrus, passion fruit, just the faintest soupçon of asparagus, and, like a nutty Edam cheese" is one pronouncement.) And it's about working his way down to the bottom of the bottle, phoning and harassing his ex, and stumbling home and passing out like any other drunk.
Jack is an addict too, of a different sort. A washed-up television leading man with a big chest, a deep tan, and a can-do California disposition—quite a contrast to the paunchy, morose Miles—he's an incorrigible pussy-hound. Despite his impending nuptials, he makes a play for almost every woman he eyeballs, and he ends up embarking on a whirligig, vaguely S&M affair with a tasting-room employee named Stephanie (Sandra Oh). But Jack is thinking about Miles, too. He encourages Miles to get cozy with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a blonde, radiantly beautiful divorced waitress and horticulture grad student with an incredible wine palate (better than Miles'). The fact that Miles isn't turning cartwheels the instant he connects with Maya is a mark of how depressed he really is. And the fact that she looks at him twice is a mark of—
Maybe Hollywood? Some viewers will find the attraction of Madsen's Maya to Miles a little mysterious. It's not that Giamatti is totally unprepossessing—just that his intense I'm-a-loser vibe and, oh yes, his obvious alcoholism don't exactly add up to the most promising boyfriend material. (We've also seen him steal money from his own mother, cut his toenails in close-up, and do a crossword puzzle while driving.) But he has his moments. He's charming when he celebrates the pinot noir grape in part because it's so hard to grow: thin-skinned, temperamental, early-ripening, needing constant care from the most patient and nurturing of growers. You don't need a shrink to tell you that Miles has overidentified with that fragile little grape. And you don't need to be a matchmaker to see that Maya has a comparable identification: She speaks lyrically of wine's ephemeralness—the way it constantly evolves, the way it conjures up a time and place long past.
This is a lovely film—agreeably rambling. It's more even-toned and less smug, I think, than Payne's last road movie, AboutSchmidt. Payne's framing is relaxed and spacious: Nothing—not even the scene where Miles pours the contents of a tasting-room spit bucket down his throat—comes off as unduly grotesque. Well, maybe that scene does, but Giamatti is buoyant even when sodden, and Church has a marvelous etherized sense of entitlement, a spoiled optimism that's pure California. It's a joy to see Madsen, a golden ingenue in the '80s who seemed permanently consigned to horror movies and made-for-cable thrillers, with first-rate material—and proving that something other than wine gets better with age.
As for the alcohol question, it's left hanging. Sideways doesn't spell out the message that Miles and Jack have to get a handle on themselves and stop disappearing sideways into their respective addictions. But that message hangs in the air—the faintest soupçon of rot in an otherwise wondrous bouquet.