Miles (Paul Giamatti), dips his nose deep inside the bowl of a glass of white wine and it is clear that this is where he is happiest and most at home. All of his mind, body, and spirit are focused inside that glass as he passionately, reverently, and yes, a little pretentiously unpacks all of the influences he can identify, everything from “a hint of like asparagus” to stawberry, passion fruit, or “a nutty Edam cheese.”
He may be disappointed by his life. He is certainly a disappointment to himself. But in this one moment, when his ability to appreciate is matched by the fragile complexity of the California wine country’s elixirs, he is confident, masterful, and fully alive.
Miles is in the Santa Ynez Valley with his friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a has-been actor, once co-star of a television shows, now making a living doing voice-overs and commercials. In one week, Jack will be getting married to a woman who is young, beautiful, and wealthy. This trip is his last bachelor getaway. The plan is to eat great food, drink great wine, and enjoy great scenery.
For Miles, it is a chance to get away from his life as a failed author (now working as a middle school teacher as he struggles to finish his gargantuan novel) and a failed husband (his wife has left him). For Jack, it is a chance to live it up before he has to be good — for good. For both of them, it is a chance to feel free.
But things are messy and complicated right from the beginning. Miles is late picking up Jack and then takes him on a detour. They stop to wish Miles’ mother a happy birthday but stay just long enough for Miles to steal some money from her bedroom. They leave before his sister arrives for the birthday celebration.
Miles wants Jack to appreciate the delicate beauty of the wine. But Jack, who barely waits for Miles to stop talking about the wine before he gulps it down, not even taking the gum out of his mouth, has a different kind of beauty appreciation in mind. When he finds out that an accommodating wine pourer named Stephanie (Sandra Oh) is a friend of Maya’s (Virginia Madsen), the waitress Miles has admired from afar, he invites them both to dinner. Jack tells the women they are celebrating Miles’ (nonexistent) book contract. Later he tells Stephanie she may be the woman he could spend the rest of his life with. Jack is such a master of the expedient lie and so incapable of thinking even an hour ahead that he begins to believe it himself.
Miles is not sure which is more terrifying – watching Jack mess up his marriage plans by getting involved with Stephanie or letting himself take the risk of trying to start a relationship with the newly-divorced Maya — who thinks she is talking to a man whose book is about to be published. Then things get even more messy and awkward, and complicated.
Or, to put it another way, things get richer, headier, and more complex, just like a fine wine. And in a world of multiplex formulas that are the movie equivalent of generic brand cola, that makes this one of the rare movies designed for grown-ups.
In one of the loveliest moments on screen this year, Miles and Maya tell each other what they like about wine. Miles’ favorite, pinot noir, is, he says “a hard grape to grow…thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early…Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression. And when that happens, its flavors are the most hangint and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet.”
Maya says she loves the way that wine is a living thing, “constantly evolving and gaining complexity” toward its prime until it reaches its peak. They both know – as we do – that they are talking about themselves.
Giamatti and Church are magnificent, fully inhabiting beautifully written roles. They are not afraid to let us see the considerable flaws of both Miles and Jack, but they are also able to show us their humanity, their connection, and their appeal. Oh and Madsen may have the even tougher challenge, as the female characters are more superficially conceived, fantasy figures whose primary function is to desire and be desired by the men. It is even more impressive, then, that they are able to make Stephanie and Maya so touching and so complete.
Parents should know that this movie is filled with very mature material, including extremely explicit sexual references and situations (including full male nudity) and some violence which, while played for comedy, results in significant injuries. Characters drink (there is a distinction made between the appreciation of wine as a work of art and drinking to numb feelings or get drunk) and use very strong language.
Families who see this film should talk about what mattered most to Miles and Jack. Despite their differences, what kept them together as friends? What does Stephanie see in Jack? What does Maya see in Miles?
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy the other films by director Alexander Payne, including About Schmidt and Election. They should also see some of the other films of Sandra Oh (Payne’s wife), including Double Happiness, and some of the other films of Paul Giamatti, including American Splendor.