Nov 10, 2004 at 12:00 am

Good wine, good food, good friends, good sex, and when in California wine country, soaking up the exquisite landscape with a fistful of the above — that’s what life’s about, right? And what about later, when you’re in your 40s and you’ve had too much to drink, and the swill goes down too quickly until you’re pissed with rage, and you’ve eaten too much until you’re thick around the sides, and your wife has left you, and you’re waiting, waiting, for happiness to come, and it never does, evading you after the third sip of wine and halfway through a meal. You didn’t make it professionally and you’re empty; you see the beauty in front of you but you can’t feel it; you taste the goodness of the wine but it doesn’t make you happy.

That’s a little bit of what Sideways is about. Though it sounds existential and morose, it’s not. It’s a sometimes hilarious look at an odd couple, a seriously pathetic pair of middle-aged men who never grew up. Paul Giamatti plays a depressed rejected novelist and wine fanatic named Miles (“miles from himself,” etc.); Thomas Haden Church is Jack, a once-famous, horny, soap-opera actor trying to get laid before he gets married. Like all cinematic road trips, these guys are out to find themselves. And like any satisfying trip, they go to hell and back to find what they’re looking for.

Thanks to seamless performances by Giamatti and Church, honest dialogue and scene settings that sparkle with realism, director Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt and a stint directing soft-core porn) delivers an unlikely gem. Sideways is a comedy rare for its complexity — like the fine wine Miles espouses. The film is worth the ticket if for nothing else than a scene in which a large, naked, hairy man chases Miles, pounds his belly against Miles’ Saab window and then chases the car down a quiet residential street with his parts flying in the wind.

Giamatti fits the anti-hero character like a glove, playing a version of the role he nailed in American Splendor. Wine is the underlying theme, providing subtext analogies for the meaning of life, etc. Somehow, Payne gets away with inserting little tutorials on the epicurean inebriate without getting annoying. And there’s something funny about watching two men on a wild bachelor getaway sipping vino. Of course, Jack gulps whatever is in front of him, while Miles obsesses over each sip. Drink or sip? Which are you?

Like any good character study, these men are familiar. They’re disgusting — Miles steals money from his mom, and Jack’s on an endless prowl for leg — but somehow their exploits are entirely entertaining, even heartwarming, and certainly good for some laughs.

After the matinee on opening day, a group of older women raved about the film while waiting to use the bathroom. “It’s so real, so real,” said a woman whose towering bouffant of red hair eclipsed her tiny frame. “That’s what people are craving these days. Miles was a total loser, but he was a hero. He had so much integrity.”

Well, except for the fact that he stood by while his friend screwed and lied like a pig. Oh, the complexity, the contradictions. As is life, so goes this film.

Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak). Call 248-262-2111.

Lisa M. Collins is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].