'Sideways' look at manhood

To escape desperate lives, two men go on a hedonistic trip.

"Sideways" comes to theaters direct from the Toronto Film Festival, where I saw it. Like earlier hits from director Alexander Payne and screenwriter Jim Taylor, including "Election" and "About Schmidt," it's based on a book that's unlikely to become as popular as the movie version. "You have to find the cinematic equivalent of the themes," said Mr. Payne in a Toronto press conference, "and the atmosphere of the novel."

The main character of "Sideways" is Miles, who hasn't been treated very fairly by life lately. Still reeling from a divorce, he finds himself spending a week with an old friend whose wedding is days away. They're visiting California's vineyard region, which is fine with Miles, a wine lover. His connoisseurship has crossed into alcoholism, however, wrecking his marriage. It doesn't help that his friend - a tenth-rate actor - just wants to hang around bars and have a last fling before his nuptials.

I admire Payne's "Election," a tough-minded movie about the manipulative nature of a high school campaign for student body president. "About Schmidt," which earned Oscar nominations for Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates, is harder to pin down. It sets up a situation where the disillusioned title character can discard his self-deluded shallowness - but chooses not to, finding solace in a sentimental moment that made me suspect Payne might be more interested in making a hit than probing human nature.

I hoped "Sideways" would return to the more biting attitudes of "Election," but it turns out the new movie is true to its title.

Neither an advance nor a retreat, it's a sideways maneuver that again lays the groundwork for cultural critique, and again lets the hero off the sociological hook in time for an upbeat ending.

Payne and Taylor haven't lost their accurate ear for middle-class aphorisms and suburban slang, and Taylor's knack for casting is better than ever - best exemplified by Paul Giamatti, who conveys Miles's complicated emotions with brilliant economy, and Thomas Haden Church, a first-rate find as Miles's pal.

All of which makes "Sideways" not a masterpiece, but definitely one of the year's most entertaining movies.

Rated R; contains sex and vulgarity.

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