What makes Sideways special? It’s gotten rave reviews, but what is it really? After all, the plot isn’t much–and it’s even a little off-putting: Two old college friends facing the burnt-out butts of their youth take a week-long road trip, during which they try to avoid thinking about their respective failures and get as much feminine tail as possible before the marginally more successful of the two gets married. But there’s one other very important element of the story, and that’s the wine they drink as they drive through their purposefully chosen vacation destination of California’s Napa Valley.

It’s got to be the wine that adds marquee value to this sharply written and winningly acted film from the director/writer team of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. People won’t see this film because of the cast, although it’s excellent, being composed of talented actors of little or middling renown, led by “star” Paul Giamatti, a balding, doughy character actor who began his improbable ascent to leading man status last year as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. Here, Giamatti is Miles Raymond, an alcoholic junior high English teacher, failing novelist and all-around depressive. Not a fun guy, he, although he has the dyspeptic wit of his near-analogue from Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman. What gives Miles life, however, and gives us hope for him, is that he has a special, finely cultivated enthusiasm for wine. Even when he’s at his lowest ebb, when his writing is bad or when sex is unavailable or unpleasant, he has the prospect of discovering a new vintage of pinot noir to anticipate.

Still, Miles is not a particularly likeable character in the way that contemporary movies have trained us to identify with their protagonists. He’s recovering from a divorce, his literary agent avoids his calls, and he’s so diffident and demoralized about his novel that we know it will never be published long before this fact is confirmed. Woody Allen used to play these characters with cuddly, endearing self-pity. Giamatti plays more to the bone; his Miles is a case of permanent gastrointestinal distress. Only his oenophilia seems to redeem his existence, but even there he can be irritatingly pompous. (He can also be hilariously pompous, as when he tells Jack before a dinner with a pair of ladies, “If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I’m not drinking fucking merlot!”)

The occasion for the trip, however, is the impending marriage of his friend Jack, a fading television actor now reduced to doing voiceovers. The anonymously handsome non-star Thomas Haden Church is perfectly cast as this vain nearly-was who milks whatever claim he has to celebrity in order to seduce every woman he sees. In the spirit of male bonding, however, he insists that the chronically depressed Miles join the fun. And that fun arrives, conveniently enough, in the form of two attractive women, both of whom are wine fanciers: Maya, a beautiful middle-aged waitress, and Stephanie, a younger, fun-loving vineyard employee who nonetheless wants a father for her daughter.

The ensuing romances take up the middle of the movie. Jack has his supposedly final fling with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), while Miles reluctantly and clumsily courts Maya, a woman who loves wine as much as he does, and even wants to read his novel. As with Church’s Jack, Virginia Madsen is shrewdly cast in a neat matching of performer and character. Madsen, now in her 40s, is best known for being beautiful, but at this stage of her career, she’s a journeywoman performer who never managed to ride her exceptional looks into the top tier of the industry. So, in her role as Maya, a faded romantic whose early opportunities have passed her by, she’s a perfect foil for Miles as he searches for his own life’s second act.

It’s a fair miracle that Sideways keeps us watching and keeps us enthralled, for it’s hardly a flattering vision of middle-aged men. Jack is a user and Miles is full of impotent self-pity. It might stretch our sympathies to see the two of them nonetheless making it with appealing and attractive women, but this is where the film’s celebration of wine comes in. The film’s flawed, unhappy characters are sustained by their appreciation of a mysterious art form that provides sensual pleasure best appreciated by those in the know (Jack is the exception–we can tell that he really prefers beer, and he’s not coincidentally the film’s shallowest character). It’s their appreciation of a fine thing such as wine that demonstrates, to us and to each other, their potential for redemption, and the film further flatters its audience by including us in their pursuit of the perfect grape.

In this anti-elitist moment, when cultivating good taste might brand one as a Kerry supporter, it feels like unseemly piling-on to complain about the unease I have with director Alexander Payne and screenwriter Jim Taylor’s attitude toward people who are less aesthetically curious. I mostly loathed their last film, About Schmidt, on those grounds, finding it a long and gratuitous assault on the idiocy of middle America. In Sideways, I was equally bothered by a scene in which Miles ventures into the home of a tow truck operator and his waitress wife. The film shows us a pigsty of a residence, complete with unfinished and unpainted drywall, and the aforementioned couple having grunting, porny sex. In the corner of the room, the television is on, showing a news clip of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. So, what exactly is this film suggesting? That America’s stupids are inflicting Bush on the rest of us who have enough sense and sensibility to appreciate a well-made bottle of wine?

As otherwise enjoyable as Sideways is, I have to say that my favorite Payne/Taylor film is still Election, the rude political satire that made a star of Reese Witherspoon. I watched it again on the eve of the presidential election, and I was struck by that film’s greater empathy for its characters–even though most of them are hopeless–which was largely achieved by giving us four different points of view. And instead of looking down its nose at the dull corruption of our society (as in About Schmidt), Election showed people struggling to succeed within it, making different ethical choices along the way. And if Sideways promotes the redemptive qualities of good taste, Election offers the timelier and tougher point that virtue is not necessarily rewarded.