Turned sideways

So everything was in place for a perfect Feb. 14 evening with my decidedly better half. Filets had been studded with a buttload of coarsely crushed peppercorns, awaiting their au poivre prep. Wine had been uncorked: 2002 cabernet sauvignon from A. Rafanelli, the first winery Sandy and I had visited together.

All that was missing was the proverbial romantic movie. We shuffled through some Italy-based options (“Summertime,” “Only You”), a couple of Woody Allen flicks (lamenting that we had not rented “Midnight in Paris”) and finally landed on “Sideways.” I hadn’t seen it in five years or so, and had it in my head that it was plenty idyllic enough for the occasion.

Uh, wrong.

Or so I thought a half-hour into our viewing. Sure, there were the transport-you-to-Wine-Country vistas, plus some nice lovey-dovey (or lusty-dusty) scenes. But Alexander Payne’s masterwork is mostly a character study, thoroughly infused with biting humor and bitter recriminations.

Yet amidst the dark turns and seriously flawed (male) characters, there’s some redemption, a few sweet turns “” especially Miles describing pinot noir/himself “” and of course Virginia Madsen’s character, the luminous, winsome Maya.

At a certain point, I realized why I had mentally slotted “Sideways” into the romantic category: It’s impossible to imagine not falling in love with Maya.

The rest of the performances are fabulous and nuanced, but Madsen’s is iconic. The movie prods our minds and souls, but Maya burrows her way into our hearts.

Blessedly, I had my own Maya sitting on the couch with me.

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