A fine vintage

Sideways is a stag-night comedy. That doesn’t mean it’s about binge-drinking in Cracow for 37, or even cocktails in the Lace Market for 20; only the groom and best man are invited, and they are spending a full week touring wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley, California. But the smell of testosterone and desperation should be familiar all the same.
The best man, and the star, is Miles (Paul Giametti), a painfully divorced teacher with a novel in some in-tray at the last publisher yet to reject it. Miles is a wine buff. He thinks of himself as a pinot noir — thin-skinned, delicate, potentially exceptional — and his aim for the week is to introduce the groom to a world of refined pleasure, and maybe show off a little.
The groom, though, is his college room-mate Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a plastic-handsome actor who once played a doctor on a daytime soap and now does voiceovers for drug ads. His aim for the week is to get laid.
Their wishes are granted. Miles gets Maya (Virginia Madsen), a beautiful waitress as divorced and earnest as he is. Jack gets Stephanie, a single-mum wine salesman who would qualify as feisty if she hadn’t fallen for such an obvious fake. And when the nature of their trip becomes clear, both men get trouble.
There are any number of ways this film could have gone wrong. When you have a director as acidic as Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt), setting up romances for two loser-ish blokes, onlookers may wonder what the women see in them (Virginia Madsen, radiating goodness and intelligence, has provoked a particularly protective reaction from some critics). Indeed, you may wonder what the two blokes see in each other. Payne, without seeming to try, gives you all their crotchets and character flaws within about the first half-hour.
Two things make it work. First, there’s the skill of the performances. Giametti is the most charismatic bearded whiny guy since Ricky Jay; he can make you identify with self-pity, and convince you there’s something behind it. And Church makes Jack’s dumb lechery seem sincere, almost good-natured.
Second, there’s the skill of the construction. I won’t give away the ending, but it refuses the characters happiness to an extent almost unbelievable in a Hollywood movie; and then relents without turning entirely sweet. Take the whole wedding party.