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‘Sideways’ is a knockout

Paul Giamatti stars in what just might be the best American film this year. By John Hartl

The middle-aged buddy movie truly comes of age with Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s “Sideways,” their fourth winner in a row.

Having deftly skewered all sides of the abortion battle (“Citizen Ruth”), found unexpected hilarity in high-school politics (“Election”), and explored the melancholy prospects of a directionless retiree (“About Schmidt”), Payne and Taylor have now created a road movie of remarkable depth and penetrating humor.

Although we’ve still got a couple of months to go, “Sideways” may turn out to be the year’s best American film. It’s the kind of picture that makes most previous attempts to explore similar dramatic territory seem intolerably shallow.

At its heart is a deeply felt understanding of a close relationship that can seem — and sometimes is — adolescent and self-destructive. Adapting a novel by Rex Pickett, Payne and Taylor make no apologies for these people, who at first may make you consider fleeing the theater. If you stick around, chances are you’ll be very glad you stayed.

The neurotic, recently divorced Miles (Paul Giamatti) and the more exuberant Jack (Thomas Haden Church) have been the best of friends for years. Miles is a novelist who has had little success, Jack is an actor who is less in demand than he used to be, and they’re thrown together again because of Jack’s impending marriage.

Jack wants to turn the days before his wedding into a week-long bachelor party, during which he will bed as many women as he can find. Appalled by this behavior and by his own personal and professional failures, Miles sees their trip through the California wine country as an opportunity to golf and do more than a little wine-tasting.

It’s easy to dismiss Jack as a duplicitous jock, but he’s the one who recognizes Miles’ potential salvation: a divorced waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen) who is a little in love with Miles. It’s just as easy to write off Miles as a depressed drunk, still stuck on his recently remarried ex-wife, but it’s Miles who has the power to rein in Jack and force him to acknowledge his hypocrisies.

They clearly need and help each other, in ways that no one else can touch, and for awhile they seem to have found exactly what they want. Following an awkward first night, Maya and Miles connect, while Jack finds himself falling for her friend Stephanie (played by Payne’s wife, Sandra Oh). Alas, there’s this little matter of Jack’s fiancee, and the wedding rehearsal that’s scheduled to take place very soon.

Fireworks do ensue, and all four actors get quite a workout. But it’s the earlier, less dramatic moments that stick with you: Jack and Miles debating their different approaches to survival; the two couples bonding and becoming a foursome; Maya and Miles getting to know each other, talking and flirting and deciding not to go further even though they can hear Jack and Stephanie loudly copulating in the next room.

Giamatti is even better here than he was in his breakthrough movie, “American Splendor,” while the others benefit from lower expectations. Church is best-known as a television actor (“Wings”), Oh for her Canadian films (“Double Happiness,” “Last Night”) and Madsen for showy supporting roles (“Dune,” “The Rainmaker”) that should have done more for her career. Under Payne’s attentive direction, they all do Oscar-worthy work.