With each film, Alexander Payne has grown as a writer and director, starting with the broadly satiric Citizen Ruth and progressing through the more nuanced Election and About Schmidt. His latest work confirms he is one of the most talented American moviemakers, and one of the most original. Despite its unpromising premise-a road movie featuring middle-aged slackers-Sideways turns out to be refreshing, unpretentious and genuinely affecting.

The film's buddies aren't exactly slackers. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a middle-school teacher and aspiring novelist who hasn't gotten over his divorce, two years past. Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is an unctuously charming, marginal actor about to marry into money. Miles has decided to take Jack on a getaway to wine country as a kind of ersatz bachelor party. He envisions an idle week of tastings, golf and elegant dinners. Jack, however, is more interested in scoring women than savoring wine, initiating a series of misadventures that come perilously close to sour grapes.

Payne and fellow screenwriter Jim Taylor make the most of this odd couple, creating characters who are at turns endearing and tiresome, as friends tend to be. Their exchanges are entertaining not because of clever banter-the stock-in-trade of sitcom-inspired dialogue-but because of well-turned banalities, so faithful to life they prompt laughter. Having the right actors delivering the lines helps. Giamatti is superb as the introspective, chronically depressed, perpetually struggling artist who, sadly, lacks the talent to achieve his ambitions. Church uncannily captures the confidence and optimism of men who live for the pleasure of the moment, never bothering to trouble themselves about the meaning of life and such. Their friendship succeeds because they don't understand each other, thus precluding petty jealousies and rivalries.

Miles and Jack find their counterparts in Maya (Virginia Madsen), a recently divorced waitress studying to become a winemaker, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a hostess at a winery and motorcycling free spirit. A large measure of the comedy and pathos of Sideways owes to the deftly handled courtship of the couples, Jack and Stephanie cutting through the chaste, so to speak, without bothering to determine so much as the other's astrological sign, Miles and Maya reserved but full of yearning. Here again, Payne and Taylor script the scenes with uncommon agility, balancing humor with heartache. If they take delight in the ordinariness of their characters, they also allow them flights of fancy, as when Miles and Maya wax eloquent about their passion for wine, delivering monologues that manage to be poetic without seeming self-conscious.

This balance, or restraint-notably suspended in two or three raucous scenes-is Sideways' strength, and it suffuses the film. Phedon Paramichael's camera, for example, captures the beauty of California's Santa Ynez Valley without fussing over it, as cinematographers tend to do in movies set in sun-drenched country. Production designer Jane Ann Stewart likewise takes existing locales-the Windmill Inn, the Hitching Post restaurant, various cluttered, lived-in apartments and houses and hotel rooms-and incorporates them into the good-natured satire of the movie. Better than any director working, Payne gets the details right, in his sets as well as his characters. Indeed, the joy of his movies comes from recognizing ourselves and the props of our lives, vin ordinaire distilled into something rare and full-bodied.

-Rex Roberts