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A very good year 

It's a headlong detour into wine, women, and redemption for old odd-couple college chums portrayed by Paul Giametti and Thomas Haden Church in Sideways.

Sad sacks and fine wine add up to one of the year's best films

There are road movies and buddy movies, and buddy-road movies, and midlife crisis road-buddy movies - and then there are movies that cover all this familiar ground but rise above it. Actually, there aren't so many of those. But Sideways is one, and it's easily one of the year's finest releases, as delicate yet robust as the wines its characters obsess over.

With one little hiccup (a scene involving a fairly pathetic elderly character), the movie puts to rest for now the complaint many of us have had about critics' darling Alexander Payne: that his tales of unglamorous midwestern folk dripped with condescension. Here, he treats his characters with compassion and understanding, even when they do stupid, self-destructive things.

It's not that the characters don't expose themselves to ridicule: Giamatti (the genius of schmuck who played Harvey Pekar in American Splendor) and Church play old college buddies who take a week off before the latter's wedding. Their idea is to tour wineries and play some golf, but the men wind up indulging their worst tendencies and endangering the blessed event that occasions their vacation.

That's because Church wants the trip to be a weeklong bachelor party, not only for himself but for his divorced and hopeless pal. Giamatti wants no part of it, but Church goads him with an impressive catalogue of homemade vulgarisms. ("We'll get your bone smooched," he promises.) As fate would have it, the lonely guy is halfway to companionship - a waitress at his favorite Wine Country restaurant (Madsen) is beautiful, single, and friendly - but Church practically has to do all the work himself. He pairs up with Madsen's friend (Sandra Oh), engineers a double date that goes as swimmingly as any television wine commercial, and gets the foursome back to Oh's house.

Dir. Alexander Payne; writ. Payne, Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Rex Pickett; feat. Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh, Marylouise Burke, Jessica Hecht (R)
The couples pair off, whereupon Madsen gets a scene that has almost certainly made her an in-demand actress again, despite her having reached the age at which Hollywood tends to dismiss its beauties. She and Giamatti are chatting about wine (there's much snobbery about vino here, sometimes played straight and sometimes for laughs) when the conversation turns metaphorical; effortlessly, Madsen turns a quiet moment into one thick with romantic promise. Giamatti is as awed as we are, and responds in the only way he can.

Although Madsen's name is rightly buzzing at the moment, this film is really devoted to the two men, who are of vastly different temperaments - like so many college acquaintances, they'd never be friends if they met today - but share a bond that allows for a lot of understanding and forgiveness. Church is endearingly hopeless, a narcissist who needs to OD on hedonism before he can bring himself to commit. Giamatti is harder to figure out: a writer with highbrow aspirations but a perfect failure rate; an aesthete who lives in near-squalor; a bitter divorcé who not-so-secretly carries a torch for his ex. He's a mess, in other words, but a beautiful one.

Payne surrounds the pair with the breezy colors and the sounds of a middlebrow Northern California. The light is diffuse and overbright, the jazz soundtrack is blandly Brubeckish. It's not serious or even necessarily pleasing, but it fits, setting the mood for a week-long trip that lets some emotions run their course, invites new ones to bubble up, and leaves everyone a little wiser than they were earlier in the month.

By John DeFore

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