Alexander Payne’s wine comedy is maturing nicely

Like any good bottle of wine, a good film should get better with age - and Alexander Payne’s melancholic buddy comedy Sideways is a vintage example.

Nine years on from its 2004 release - when this low-budget, star-free story about two friends’ week-long tour of the Californian vineyards grossed more than $100m worldwide - it doesn’t feel a day out of date.

Adapted from Rex Pickett’s novel by Payne and Jim Taylor (who picked up an Oscar for their script), it’s that rare thing: an upbeat tale of disappointments, failure and middle-aged malaise.

As such, it falls neatly alongside films like Zorba The Greek and Withnail & I - two sides of the same soul journeying together, the outgoing, self-serving sensualist and the bookish, neurotic introvert.

In this case, we have divorcee Miles (Paul Giamatti), a middle-school English teacher, unpublished novelist and wine-connoisseur/snob - a man every bit as “thin-skinned [and] temperamental” as the Pinot grape he so loves.

Alongside him is his former college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church), ex-soap star turned jobbing actor now looking for one last bachelor-party fling before he walks down the aisle.

Typified by Rolfe Kent’s jaunty jazz score, Sideways bubbles along easily, never over-cooking the drama or comedy as Jack hooks up with winery worker Stephanie (Sandra Oh) while Miles hopelessly dances around waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen).

That said, when the laughs come they’re as satisfying as that ’61 cheval blanc Miles has been hoarding all these years.

Likewise, the tears; why Giamatti didn’t get an Oscar nomination is beyond belief.

He offers up a masterclass in emotions that fester below the surface, from the moment Miles drops in to surprise his mother to the heartbreaking revelation he endures when he meets his ex-wife.

Embittered, fatalistic, this self-described “thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper” may wallow in self-pity and the pages of Barely Legal, but he does so in a way we all recognise.

Less snarky than Payne and Taylor’s predecessor About Schmidt, the script is blessed with beautiful writing - not least Madsen’s speech about how a “bottle of wine is alive” - right up to the ambiguous, hopeful conclusion.

Unquestionably Payne’s best work (check the control he exerts on the “drink and dial” montage, filtering in the payphone ringtone over the hubbub), it’s the sort of film that creeps up on you and, ultimately, won’t let go.

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