In the opening minutes of Alexander Payne's wonderful road comedy Sideways, Paul Giamatti gives the first impression of an unkempt California layabout of Big Lebowski proportions. A divorced misanthrope slouching into middle age, Giamatti is scheduled to embark on a weeklong trip through wine country with his old college buddy Thomas Haden Church, but he wakes up late, throws on a tattered brown robe, and absorbs a round of petty humiliations first. And yet, just as the audience might be ready to cast him off as a garden-variety loser, Giamatti slips into a coffeehouse and orders The New York Times (he does the crossword in pen) and a spinach croissant, the first sign that beneath his schlumpy exterior beats the heart of a sophisticate.
Making another claim on the title "the Preston Sturges of his generation," Payne (Election) defines his universe through these sorts of wry behavioral observations; in his last film, About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson's order at an Omaha Dairy Queen says more about him than reams of dialogue would have accomplished. Like Nicholson, Giamatti expects nothing from life but disappointment, and his attitude has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Still, he's a diamond in the rough, a noble and sensitive soul who begs for (yet aggressively resists) discovery. A true wine connoisseur, capable of arch phrases like "quaffable but far from transcendent," Giamatti sees the road trip as a casual jaunt through boutique vineyards and public golf courses, but his mismatched pal has other ideas. A washed-up soap-opera actor who acts like a castaway from a Mike Judge cartoon, Church expects a frat-guy bacchanal before he gets married the following weekend. To that end, Church trains his bird-dog eyes on sexy single mother Sandra Oh while Giamatti tentatively courts the charming Virginia Madsen, a local waitress who shares his rarefied palette.
As much as Payne lampoons the haughty language of the tasting elite, he also uses wine as a natural metaphor for aging gracefully and seizing peak moments before they crest. Though his unpretentious style and generous sense of humor could be mistaken for a lack of artistry, Payne's knack for broad, crowd-pleasing comedy fails to do justice to how much thought and feeling goes into the tiniest details in his movies. Subtle shadings in décor and behavior sharpen the gags and make the characters seem more real, which gives the film's dramatic payoff a resonance far more powerful than its breezy tone might have predicted. As in About Schmidt, Sideways builds to a scene where the hero has to do the right thing against all his bitter instincts, and Giamatti's face brings two hours of observation into a heartbreaking summation. Good comedies are rare, but rarer still are those that conflate laughter with intimacy.