(2004) *** 1/2 R
127 min. Fox Searchlight. Director: Alexander Payne. Cast: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh, Marylouise Burke.

In vino veritas, those crazy Romans used to say. Wine is the vehicle for Alexander Payne's comedy-drama Sideways, and also its central metaphor. Payne and his regular co-writer Jim Taylor, who last collaborated on About Schmidt, take another chance on a sympathetic schlub. This time, it's Paul Giamatti as Miles, a recently divorced schoolteacher and aspiring writer. When Miles describes, at length, a Pinot as "thin-skinned, temperamental...a little sour but showing excellent potential for structure down the line," he paints an optimistic and subliminal self-portrait.

The broken-hearted Miles can only see an upside after plenty of wine, however. Most of the time, he describes himself as the dregs at the bottom of the glass. His best friend Jack, an ex-sitcom star played by ex-sitcom star Thomas Haden Church, insists that they take a detour into wine country. Looking forward to his "last week of freedom," Jack sees the getaway as full of promise: he considers the potential publication of Miles's novel a done deal worthy of celebration and, more importantly, is out to get himself and Miles laid before Jack's impending nuptials. The cynical Miles focuses on half-empty wine glasses--he's there to taste wine and await word from his agent.

Thanks to Jack's prodding ("You need to get your joint worked on, Miles"), the two men share a double-date: Miles with an attractive waitress he's known for years, played by Virginia Madsen, and Jack with a fiery wine stewardess played by Sandra Oh. Because this is an Alexander Payne movie, various humiliating social disasters befall both men, soliciting laughter and painful recognition from the audience. Miles can't help himself: a defeatist all the way, he calls his ex-wife from a pay phone during the double date's drunken tear (Payne shoots the call in excruciating close-up), stumbles into a supremely romantic moment and then panics it out of existence, and bemoans, "I'm so insignificant I can't even kill myself."

Payne has supplanted the Coen Brothers as a reliable purveyor of smart comedy. The characters in Sideways are recognizable real-world figures with endearing quirks, from Miles's penchant for doing the New York Times crossword while driving on the freeway to his inability to extricate himself from his mother's apartment, a twin to Miles's dingy home at the inaptly named "Sea Crest" apartments. Giamatti has never been better (which is saying something) and for that matter, Church, Madsen, and Oh have never been better, either; their performances are, to a one, revelatory. Payne steers their embarrassing plot reversals to plausible consequences of Miles' and Jack's ill-advised behavior. Payne and Taylor seem hopeful for their characters in equal measure to the audience, so by film's end, there's reason to believe these sideways sliders will take forward steps.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 2/3/2009

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In its Blu-ray debut, Sideways definitely looks its best. Understand that it also looks a bit hazy (with some stray dust apparent in the picture), but not at all unlike how the film appeared on screens. Grain is intact but not distracting--this is just a film that's always going to look soft, and this Blu-ray is the best bet, offering the most detail. The DTS-HD Master Audio track likewise gets the job done. Again, this is the disc to own for fans of the film, just not the one to show off your home theater at its best advantage.

Bonus features include a highly entertaining commentary by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church that finds the friendly duo in an endearingly goofy mood. Happily, they also share plenty of interesting trivia along with their merry jests.

Seven "Deleted Scenes" (17:14 with "Play All" option, SD) come with textual introductions by Alexander Payne.

Lastly, a "Featurette" (6:34, SD) includes behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Payne, Giamatti, Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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