Time Out says‘Can I ask you a personal question?’ wonders Miles (Paul Giamatti), our paunchy anti-hero, as he leans in towards Maya (Virginia Madsen), a friend he knows from his regular trips to California’s vineyards. ‘Why are you so into Pinot?’
What a chat-up line. Yet this and other crucial questions concerning wine, men, love and friendship are the lifeblood of this low-key road movie about two middle-aged men, Miles and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), who take to the highway to explore California’s vineyards in the week before Jack gets married.
This odd, contrasting pair share little more than long-gone college days. Miles is a schoolteacher, aspiring novelist and divorcé with a near-desperate obsession for wine and a defeatist, hang-dog demeanour that indicates he is a depressed shell of his former self. Jack, meanwhile, is an out-of-work actor, fancies himself as a Casanova and still dines out on a long-gone, brief stint on a television soap opera. Their ideas of a holiday are very different: Miles just wants to drink wine and play golf, while Jack is determined to have one last fling before marriage and so engineers an evening with two local girls, Maya and Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Jack is in his element; Miles seems about to disintegrate.
Depression, loss and disappointment are at the heart of this film, which grounds a simple story of mismatched friends and road-movie mishaps in serious, intelligent and affecting themes. In their different ways, Jack and Miles are the embodiment of male crisis. Payne, meanwhile, demonstrates immense confidence by holding back both the humour and the pace of the film so that it trips along maturely like the lazy Californian sun that he indulges so well. He and co-writer Jim Taylor also have great fun with Miles’ oenophile tendencies, allowing for such gems of dialogue as ‘quaffable, but far from transcendent’. Intelligent, funny and moving.