Sweet Sip of a Dark Vintage

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If we are what we love, then Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) is exactly like the wine he most treasures: Pinot. He loves that the grape is quirky and vulnerable — that it grows only in certain climates, that it tests the nurturing patience of its growers. And the flavor! For the connoisseur: haunting and thrilling. Which is just what his friends might say of the divorced, depressed, chronically romantic Miles.

His actor pal Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is a less learned oenophile. "Pinot Noir?" he asks, guzzling it as if it were Gatorade. "Then how come it's white?"

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Sideways sends Miles, a schoolteacher and the anguished author of a 759-page unpublished novel, and Jack, who used to be a TV sort-of star and now does voice-overs for commercials, up the California coast on a vacation of wine, women and golf the week before Jack's wedding. Sounds like your ordinary buddy road movie, with self- discovery lurking like a state trooper around every bend. It has two chase scenes and a car crash. But the film, scripted by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor and directed by Payne, is in no way ordinary. Since Miles and Jack moor in the Santa Ynez Valley to sample the local vintages, it's a sedentary road movie. Instead of the usual cantina of eccentrics, just two significant characters cross their path: Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wine pourer.

One other thing: Sideways is by far the year's best American movie. It's vigorous, gracious, tenderly attentive to Miles' and Jack's immense flaws — a paean to the durability of life's losers, which is to say most of us. This sunny, funny trip of a film would stamp a 2-hr. smile even on Miles' forlorn face.

Jack and Miles are ideal opposites. Miles is nerdy and needy, analyzing every sip of wine, fretting over every impulse, convinced that he's too insignificant a writer even to kill himself: "Hemingway, Sexton, Plath, Woolf — you can't commit suicide until you're published." Jack, whose fluorescent grin almost distracts from his fading good looks, still believes he has It. ("I get chicks lookin' at me all the time, all ages. Dudes too.") With a true actor's magnificent focus and minute attention span, he's so in the moment than he can convince himself of anything, including that a night of great sex is a cue to call off the wedding.

Miles has a habit of missing the moment, even when it grabs him by the hand. One evening, he and Maya talk warmly about wine. He delivers his dark Pinot rhapsody; she speaks of wines as if they were people she wants to meet — people like Miles. It's one of the most poignant falling-in-love duets in movie history, with an ending so faithful to real life, it could break your heart.

All praise to the acuity of the actors: the hilarious Church as a charmer who can intuit the flattering lies everyone wants to hear; Madsen with an intense, sexy intelligence; Giamatti radiating pain and fitful star quality. His Miles keeps hurting but keeps searching; this frustrated novelist isn't looking for a big publisher so much as for a loving reader. In Maya, whom he has disappointed in so many ways, he may have found one. Perhaps the depressive has found a reason to hope. What is hope, anyway, if not knocking one last time on the door of a beautiful woman you've hurt?