Another terrific movie from writer-director Alexander Payne–his fourth in four tries–with another award-caliber performance by Paul Giamatti after his spectacular turn in last year’s “American Splendor.” The delightfully subtle and unpredictable “Sideways” moves topographically from the Nebraska of Payne’s Omaha trilogy–“Citizen Ruth,” “Election” and “About Schmidt”–to the California wine country (the lushness of which it uses to complement the emotional richness of the script), but, with a strong assist from cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, it’s made in the same wonderfully naturalistic, unhurried style that marked those earlier pictures. In these days of hyperkinetic, artificial Hollywood pizzazz, that very lack of “style” in the conventional sense is itself wonderfully stylish. Watching the film takes one back to the pictures of the seventies, when a touch of raggedness around the edges was seen as beautiful and pacing that allowed for nuance and the gradual revelation of character was seen as a virtue rather than a defect. “Sideways” is hilarious, but its humor arises not from the clumsy contrivances that dominate in American comedies nowadays, but from recognizable oddity that’s authentically human and engaging. And it showcases fascinating characters, as deliciously complex as the vintages they savor over the course of the narrative, whom it approaches indirectly, as the title indicates, gradually revealing their facets rather than presenting them to us as the simple, single-trait caricatures that populate most contemporary movies.

Generically “Sideways” is a road movie about two very dissimilar guys, entering none too comfortably into early middle age, who maintain an unlikely friendship dating from their days as college roommates. One is Miles Raymond (Giamatti), a dyspeptic teacher and would-be “serious” novelist (his magnum opus, which no publisher has seen fit to accept for publication, is a seven-hundred plus page manuscript titled “The Day After Yesterday”) who’s still grief-stricken over the failure of his marriage. The other is Jack Lopate (Thomas Haden Church), a grubby actor who’s relegated to commercials and voice-over work and is about to marry a woman who’s father promises him a job in real estate. Before the nuptials occur, Miles–an amateur but very serious wine fancier–has planned a weeklong trip for the two of them through the vineyards outside Santa Barbara. After a brief stopover with Miles’ mother (Marylouise Burke), where Miles actually lifts a few bucks from her secret stash, the duo is off on a common trip but two very different quests. Miles intends to introduce Jack to the joys of wine tasting while they quietly enjoy some good meals and golf. But Jack, an inveterate womanizer, wants nothing more than to make a few conquests before getting hitched, and to reinvigorate his dolorous friend by helping him hook up with a new lady, too. It’s from this premise that the pair’s varied adventures–tinged with both mirth and melancholy–arise. The most important of them involves their dalliances with two women: Jack takes up with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), an ebullient wine-pourer who’s unaware of his imminent wedding, while Miles struggles haltingly to connect with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a recently-divorced waitress whose love of wine is as great as his own. All the incidents in the film spin off from these relationships, and they run the gamut from genuinely touching to explosively hilarious. But what informs them all is a basic reality, an approach that keeps all the characters recognizably human even as it plays with their quirks and foibles. The material, and Payne’s gentle, generous direction, bring out the very best in the actors. Giamatti is once again spectacular, drawing a portrait of a nerdy, needy man with consummate skill, and Church matches him point for point: Jack may seem a much simpler fellow than Miles, but Church gives him remarkable shadings, as well as putting across the overgrown adolescent’s raucous side with marvelous directness (like his rambunctious actions during the sole golf outing the guys have and his solution to explaining away an injury he’s received–both moments handled with deadpan perfection by both the actor and the director). Oh and Madsen are equally on target, creating rich, rounded figures despite having considerably less screen time–a tribute not only to the actresses but to the sharpness of the writing and Payne’s astute handling. Even the minor characters, like Burke’s solicitous mother and Jessica Hecht’s empathetic ex-wife, register much more strongly than one would expect. From the technical perspective “Sideways” also has the virtues of unaffectedness–there’s nothing flashy about Jane Ann Stewart’s production design, Timothy Kirkpatrick’s art direction or Wendy Clark’s costumes, but they all seem absolutely right; and Kevin Tent’s loose, limber editing–which allows things to unfold at a delightfully natural pace–is complemented by a jazzily bouncing score from Rolfe Kent that captures the story’s varied tones unerringly.

“Sideways” is easily one of the year’s best films–both funny and sad, charming and poignant. But one hesitates to praise it as enthusiastically as it deserves, because like the fine wines it celebrates (along with its equally fine characters), its virtues are delicate. If you go to the film expecting it to blow you away like some Hollywood blockbuster, you’re bound to be disappointed. But if you approach it as you would a superb vintage at its peak, giving it time to breathe and blossom, it will both tickle and warm you. It’s truly an intoxicating treat.