(2004)4.5Josh RalskeWhen it comes to playing a schlub, Paul Giamatti has no peer. His ascension to the status of lead actor is a godsend for lovers of cinema, and it's hard to overstate his accomplishment in following up his wonderfully nuanced performance as crank Harvey Pekar in American Splendor with his heartbreakingly rich lead performance as Miles Raymond in Sideways. Other actors excel at playing sad sack characters, but few are as adept as Giamatti at precisely dramatizing self-inflicted misery. Sideways, Alexander Payne's fourth feature, is a funny, engaging, and thoughtful film with many virtues, but it's hard to imagine that anyone else could have brought Miles to life with such vibrancy. He's the most self-aware of Payne's pathetic antiheroes, and as a result, Sideways is Payne's most humane and hopeful film. It's as acerbically funny as Election but with a soulful humanity best expressed in a phenomenal scene in which Miles and Maya (played with warmth and sharp intelligence by Virginia Madsen) take turns explaining why they love wine. It's a simple scene rendered transcendent by gorgeously believable dialogue and the conviction of two superb actors playing at their best. The fragile bond between Miles and Maya is the soul of the film, grounding the more outrageous antics of Jack (Thomas Haden Church) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), which are played with equally revelatory expertise. Sideways is a small buddy movie but wonderfully detailed. It's captivating enough to win converts to the grape and conveys a wealth of lived knowledge about male bonding and its discontents.