Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
Based on Rex Pickett’s novel of the same name.
Reviewed by Clement von Franckenstein
Rating (a 1 – 6 scale): 5.5
I am a man who enjoys full-bodied burgundies and full-bodied women, so this excellent little "road film” by Alexander Payne (who also directed Election and About Schmidt) is right up my alley, and also happens to be the best film I’ve seen so far this year.
Set in California, Paul Giamatti plays Miles, a recently divorced schoolteacher with aspirations as a novelist. He is yet to be published, and is both neurotic and full of self-pity. He takes solace in being an oenophile (i.e., a connoisseur of fine wine), which is his grand excuse for being an alcoholic.
Miles sets off north to the wine country with his best friend Jack, a good-looking, middle-aged ex-soap-opera actor, now mainly making his living doing commercials, played by Thomas Haden Church. Jack is about to improve his situation by "marrying up” into a wealthy Armenian family, in spite of the fact that he is a raving sexaholic! The nuptials are taking place the following Saturday, and he is accompanying his best man (Giamatti) up north to drink some good wine and sow some final wild oats. He also wants to get Miles laid after a long abstinence since his divorce.
Both men are damaged goods and although utterly different, they compliment each other in very funny ways. They share little more than their history together, and a blend of failed potential and fading youth. Miles wants to educate Jack in the ways of tasting and appreciating fine California wines, and in doing so they encounter a sexy young wine salesperson in the shape of Sandra Oh (the real life wife of the director) who Jack flips for. She has a girlfriend (Virginia Madsen, in a wonderful performance), who is a divorced waitress that’s interested in the neurotic Miles.
The guys take them both to a very wine-filled dinner, after which Miles, drunk and maudlin, calls his ex-wife from the restaurant pay phone, eliciting the wonderful line from Jack "I warned you never to drink and dial.”
The excellent writing is subtle, funny and at times poignant as when Miles, in explaining his love of Pinot Noir to Madsen's character ("The Pinot grape, which is very sensitive, needs nurturing in exactly the right temperature and soil.”), is actually talking about himself. Payne also inserts quiet humor throughout, as when the "swinging bachelors” watch Grapes Of Wrath in their hotel room. The chemistry between Miles and Madsen builds slowly as they are an unlikely couple, but in Payne’s sure hands it is totally believable. Haden Church, known mainly for his work on the series Wings and Ned And Stacy, is a revelation as the caddish womanizing Jack, and should show up at Oscar time. His final one night stand with a plump waitress, interrupted by her husband, and causing Miles to break in and retrieve Jack’s wallet with the wedding rings, is one of the funniest scenes in memory.
Giamatti as usual is excellent at unpeeling the many layers of his lonely, wounded, tightly wound character, and Sandra Oh does some of her best and funniest work. Rolf Kent’s evocative jazz score creates just the right atmosphere. This is a wonderful little film that makes you feel and laugh all at the same time, and one is also given a master class in wine appreciation as an added bonus!