Ageing voiceover actor Jack (Church) is finally tying the knot. To celebrate, his longtime friend Miles (Giamatti) treats him to a stag week in the Californian vineyards, to teach him the ways of wine tasting. But Jack has different plans: he wants to get the morose Miles laid - and get his own end away while he's at it...
Fact: Alexander Payne is one of America's most exciting filmmakers. Not because he delivers slick, cobalt-tinged thrillers or CG-fuelled sci-fi swirlers, of course... In fact, his material is placed very deliberately at the other end of the spectacle spectrum. Payne is concerned with the mundane: his is a USA where Jack Nicholson travels the freeways not perched on the back of a Harley, but slumped at the wheel of a Winnebago.
He and co-writer Jim Taylor don't need to worry about being cool or spectacular, because, in the likes of Election, About Schmidt and now Sideways, they've mastered the most important element of storytelling: character. They're not concerned with heroes, just people: small people, bruised people, rumpled people - people like Miles (an Oscar-deserving Paul Giamatti), a depressed, divorced wannabe novelist, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of wine but can't even remember how old his mother is. Or people like Miles' crass buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), whose rugged good looks are starting to melt, and who uses this as an excuse to cram as much sex as possible into his final week of bachelorhood.
Making these people interesting is one thing; making them likeable is another, and Payne and Taylor achieve this not in spite of, but because of, their flaws. It's quite a feat - Miles and Jack don't so much get under your skin as climb inside your heart. One scene in particular strikes you hard: while clumsily, reluctantly attempting to seduce waitress and fellow vinophile Maya (an excellent, back-from-obscurity Virginia Madsen), Miles explains why he rates the Pinot grape above any other. Because it's thin-skinned, he says, temperamental, requiring patient nurturing... He's oblivious to the fact he's really describing himself, but Maya isn't.
Payne and Taylor's script sings melodiously in every scene, their acuteness of observation perfectly servicing both the drama and the comedy (you'll giggle at Miles pretentiously holding his finger to his ear as he inhales a wine's aroma), while they're not afraid to occasionally force it broad and farcical, thereby supplying some hearty belly-laughs. It may suffer a slight second-act sag, but as with its characters, Sideways' flaws are no obstacle to loving it.
Brilliantly observed characters are becoming second nature to Payne and Taylor, and the performances here are uniformly terrific. This is wonderful, original stuff.