Everybody got hung up on the most obvious points of that character—that I was this zhlubby geek guy,” says Paul Giamatti, referring to his uncanny turn as American Splendor’s grumbling comics legend Harvey Pekar. Though he admits all the “heroic loser” reviews “weren’t really a misreading of the character, either,” you can understand why Giamatti, a veteran of Tom Stoppard and David Hare dramas on Broadway, might want viewers to look deeper. Pekar was far more complex than the Hollywood sidekicks he’d been playing, all with names like Shorty (Paycheck), Gordo (Confidence), Marty (Big Fat Liar), Veal Chop (Safe Men), or Pig Vomit (Private Parts). Pekar’s not just a geek, and neither is Miles, the grumpy divorcé of Sideways, the closing-night film of this fall’s New York Film Festival.
Directed by Alexander Payne (Election, Citizen Ruth), Giamatti plays Miles, who takes his wild pal Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a road trip through Napa on the eve of Jack’s wedding. Miles is every bit as torn up as Jack Nicholson’s character in Payne’s About Schmidt. As Jack cavorts and Miles grumbles, the film teeters between comedy and small midlife tragedy, all the while confirming Giamatti’s skill at playing guys who are uncomfortable in their own skin. “My agent said, ‘It’s this knockabout buddy comedy,’ ” he recalls with disbelief. “But I thought it was a very sad script that didn’t go anywhere predictable.”
Giamatti’s scenes sound like shtick: At a wine tasting, Miles yells at a bartender, “Give me a full pour! I’ll pay for it!” then grabs the spittoon, gulping down backwash and sloshing himself crimson. In the film, though, it’s brutal. “When we were filming that scene, Alexander came up to me and said, ‘That’s great—it wasn’t funny at all,’ ” Giamatti explains, noting that the perverse charm of the film is that these moments “are a little confounding; they’re kind of funny only because they’re so extreme, so grotesque.”
Giamatti’s character is a mess of contradictions. He’s a heavy drinker who loves fine wine but can’t afford it, who loves his mother but steals from her, who writes a novel but can’t get it published, who adores and despises his best friend. He delivers obsessive, oenophilic monologues, all of which end up being less about their subject than about their intent: consoling a friend, pitying himself, wounding a lover. “But it couldn’t be just anything that they’re talking about,” Giamatti corrects. “It’s important that it’s about something sophisticated, because it’s about this elaborately constructed façade he’s desperately maintaining. He’s trying to make something more meaningful with his life,” he says. “I guess like Harvey Pekar.”
Which makes Sideways perfect both for a highbrow film festival and for Giamatti, who once starred in Chekhov’s Three Sisters on Broadway while appearing in multiplexes in a Howard Stern biopic. Then again, Giamatti says a friend has spotted more political themes. “Somebody said my character is Kerry, a guy who maybe can’t quite take a stand and has this kind of Europeanized vision of things. And that Tom’s character is kind of a George Bush, oblivious to the damage he’s causing, just happily destroying everything in his path.”