Sideways’ proves to be a straight-up phenomenal flick

“Sideways”Fox Searchlight PicturesDirected by Alexander PayneScreenplay by Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, and Rex PickettBased on the novel by Rex PickettStarring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh, and Virginia MadsenRated R/ 123 minutesOpens in theaters Nov. 19

“Sideways,” director Alexander Payne’s (“About Schmidt,” “Election”) poignant washout case study, bravely probes the ethos of the despairing just-over-the-hill contingent.

For millions, the mid-life quagmire of failure and disappointment smothers fiery aspirations. Maybe wistful, furtive dreams will never be realized-then what?

Peering deeply into this dispirited, nearly-beaten psyche (personified by Paul Giamatti’s character, Miles), “Sideways” evokes piercing, hauntingly commiserative sentiments.

We identify with the characters not because they’re microcosmic, in fact, the two male leads are persons with whom we would loath to admit sharing any similarities. Rather, we relate because they’re unapologetically imperfect, genuine.

As in mundane, camera-less life, these characters never undergo timely metamorphoses. Each is hopelessly and irrevocably flawed, a battered vestige of life’s less-than-auspicious hand-outs.

But, in an unusual twist, nobody in “Sideways” truly redeems himself or herself. The characters, for the most part, retain their foibles and in the end can only rudimentarily cope with life’s lemons.

There’s something innately endearing in such a depiction of unabashed humanity-something profound and edifying.

“Sideways” begins with Miles (played by a phenomenally morose Paul Giamatti), a recently divorced, soon-to-be-failed novelist, picking up his old college buddy Jack, a has-been TV actor (played by Thomas Haden Church, a god among men since “Wings”).

As a prelude to Jack’s big day (his wedding is at the end of the week), the two of them embark on a one-week prenuptial wine-tasting and golf sabbatical in central California.

Miles, marred by the scars of divorce, an unhappy career (he’s a middle school English teacher), and perpetual writing failure, takes comfort in pretentious oenophilic delusions of superiority. He loves to show off his stilted wine knowledge and drags Jack to many tastings in which he pedantically analyzes every swish. Jack, at first acquiescing to Miles’ prosaic docket, soon allows his lecherousness to guide him to a sexy winery worker, Stephanie (played by Sandra Oh). Much to Miles’ disgust, Jack and Stephanie begin a sweltering affair.

Miles, too mired in self-pity to notice, draws the interest of Maya (played by Virginia Madsen), a pretty bar maid with an immaculate wine palate. After some double dates and other activities that most people enjoy, Miles permits his sullenness (and propensity for drunk dialing his ex-wife) to thrust him into a downward spiral.

Maya embodies everything that Miles wants, and more importantly, everything he needs. But Miles can’t see it. He’d rather sulk.

Jack has zero tolerance for Eeyore behavior. “Don’t you sabotage me,” he threatens periodically, his desperate need to reclaim a lost sense of youth trumping his friendship. Only a cataclysm can temper such a conquest.

After the Stephanie fling goes awry, Jack beds a lionizing (and very married) waitress whom he meets at a steakhouse. Classy.

Her husband walks in on them and needless to say, Jack barely escapes the husband’s fury.

One problem though- he’s left his wallet on the bedside table.

Miles, in a rare moment of valor, infiltrates the waitress’ house and nabs Jack’s wallet. But, to his surprise (and ours), he’s chased to his car by the rotund, starkly naked husband.

Hilarious.

As the trip drags on, Jack and Miles seem content to sally full speed toward self-destruction. Only after they hit (literally) the nadir of their trip do they begin to mend their broken parts.

Thanks to a spot-on screenplay (adapted from Rex Pickett’s novel) and Payne’s masterful direction, “Sideways” is imbued with a rare realism.

Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church suffuse the two central characters with an exuding vitality. Their comic chops are keen and Giamatti’s performance, in particular, is Oscar-worthy.

The Academy won’t slight him again, if they know what’s good for them (“American Splendor,” anyone?).

Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen portray Miles and Jack’s lady friends at half-vibrancy. Both roles are hearty and complex, yet neither Oh nor Madsen fully realizes their character’s complementary potential.

“Sideways” is cinema at its zenith-a film driven by a genuine emotive generator.

For a quality film with a soul that so properly befits its title as the awkward, off-set wallflower among most other films out right now, all you can do is be thankful and catch it.

L’chayim, Payne. “Sideways” is bold and soulful to the last drop.

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