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The Grapes of Wretchedness.

Lost in a wine-dark sea, Miles (Paul Giamatti) is withering on the vine. His wife left him two years ago and he’s still in the drunk-dialing throes of despair. His novelist aspirations are dying an ugly death in ever-smaller publishing houses. Both oenophile and alcoholic, he drinks too much, eats too much, surveys the world in furtive glances, and cringes with self-loathing every time he looks in the mirror. He’s lugubrious, pedantic, bristling with negativity to the core. In sum, Miles is almost completely beaten down by life…so of course he attracts the attention of a smart, beautiful woman (Virginia Madsen) who shares all his important interests and remains fond of him, even and despite his awful behavior.

If you can get past this one critical and wholly improbable plot point (and I did, eventually), Alexander Payne’s Sideways is a trip to California wine country well worth taking. The movie basically plays like an approaching-middle-age version of About Schmidt (right down to the unfortunate nude scene), but this seemed a more well-rounded and generous film than its predecessor. (I thought Schmidt derived too many laughs from turning Dylan McDermott’s character into a buffoon. That being said, I also think Sideways flinches from reality in the closing moments in a way About Schmidt didn’t.) And, while I’m about as far from a wine connoisseur as you can get (whites with chicken and fish, right?), Sideways also succeeds in making the subculture of oenophilia both accessible and reasonably engaging, a few ham-handed “wine-is-life” soliloquies notwithstanding.

Special nods go to all the actors involved here, and particularly Paul Giamatti for making it so easy to empathize with the easily unlikable Miles…I can’t think of many other folks who could have pulled it off so well (In fact, looking back I’d say Nicholas Cage pulled it off less well in Adaptation.) I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Thomas Haden Church, as Miles’ low-key, horny doofus of a best friend, and Virginia Madsen, as the previously noted underwritten muse of second chances, get some action come award time (which may end up meaning sour grapes for the Closer crowd.)

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