Paul Giamatti is perfection as Miles, a slumming writer who latest novel is destined to fail. Why? Because failure oozes for this poor man’s wine-sodden pores–a writer whose brilliance has been snuffed out by divorce and a dead-end secondary school teaching job. The movie opens with him and his actor-pal, Jack (Church), setting off for a weeklong wine country getaway prior to the latter’s nuptials. While Miles has his mind set on wine and golf, Jack is intent on chasing wine country tail.
What a pleasure it is to watch Giamatti at work. Alexander Payne’s script is wonderful in so many ways: the two friends are two halves of the same person, one unapologetically hedonistic and carefree, the other self-defeating and neurotic. This twinning is obvious as a design to facilitate character development, but we enjoy the artifice nonetheless.
Giamatti sinks his teeth into his character, and we get from him a truly complete portrayal, beautifully rich and layered. His performance is itself a complex and nuanced vintage like the pinots that he adores so much. Thomas Hayden Church as his comic foil–the oversexed Jack who’s about to get hitched and determined to have his last fling–plays up the doofus angle a tad too obviously. Payne’s script likewise tends towards sitcom-level plot shenanigans and punchline deliveries–an unfortunate tack because it under-serves such promising material. Virginia Madsen as Mia, a beautiful grad student who shares Miles’s passion for wine and who he goes bonkers for, offers a stellar supporting performance. Their scenes together comprise some of the headiest and most honest interpersonal drama to come along all year: the porch scene in which each confesses why they love wine proves a lovely device for revealing these characters’ tender sub-textual layers.
All in all, Giamatti handily raises what could’ve been a pedestrian road trip romance into the stratosphere of a world-class character study. Payne is an excellent writer; if his visual techniques matched his gift with dialogue and working with actors, we’d have the makings of a new Bergman or Satyajit Ray.
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh