“Sideways” is worth seeing. It was released several months ago and is still playing in theaters. I saw it a couple of weeks ago at the Globe (which is a great theater for independent film in Winnipeg).

It seems to be succeeding on the strength of good acting, direction and writing, word of mouth, good reviews and a few awards instead of hard promotion, special effects, star performers and the rest of the tricks that make a commercially successful movie. There is some information about the movie including storyline at the movie’s official site (this site is a bit annoying) and the Sideways pages at the Internet Movie Data Base.
The story is that Miles (Paul Giamatti) takes his college roommate Jack (Paul Haden Church) on a road trip into California’s wine country, stopping at the wine bars in the vineyards to taste really good wine. Miles is entering middle age. He teaches high school English. He has a novel out there, with an agent. He is still overwhelmed by his wife’s deparature. He knows wine, and he is a little arrogant and pretentious, and needy and compulsive and lot of flawed things. His friend Jack is a bad actor, with good looks and little talent, and the far end of a career in soaps and commercials. He is marrying a woman in a wealthy family – Armenian immigrants – and will join the family business, developing real estate. He could care less about the wine, and his objective is to get one or more one night stands with any available women. He hits on Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a waitress at a wine bar who seems to be ready to party. He gets Stephanie to approach Maya (Virginia Madsen) a younger divorced woman, working as a waitress as she finishes her education. He thinks Miles needs to get laid, and he also needs to find Miles a date to get him out of the way as he pursues Stephanie. Miles is intensely uncomfortable with his role in the business, although he is attracted to Maya. He gets drunk leading to an ill-advised phone call to his ex-wife from the restaurant, and the now famous “drink and dial” rebuke from Jack. Jack gets more chances to connect with Maya, but they continue to flinch as they touch each other’s old wounds. And the story continues …
The acting by all four main characters is fabulous. Giamatti brings Miles to life, Paul Haden Church is gloriously immature beach boy making excuses for his screw-ups, Sanda Oh is tough and vulnerable and wounded, Virginia Madsen is guarded, hopeful, ready for life. The story unfolds gradually, building in a little comedy around the odd friendship of Miles and Jack, their needs and appetites and plans and egos. It also takes us into some more uncomfortable territory, watching Miles trying to find the confidence to be himself with Maya, watching Stephanie come unglued when she finds that she fell for Jack, who told her he loved her when he was in the moment, watching Jack rationalize his unecessary lies. Then it switches into sublime farce when Jack seduces another waitress and has to get out fast when her large angry husband comes home – leaving his wallet behind.
Alexander Payne directed this movie and co-wrote the screenplay. He also wrote and directed “About Schmidt” (2002), and “Sideway” shows a similiar touch. The story is character driven and the story follows a crooked and unpredictable arc. His characters are painfully real. Miles has problems, and his life is not going as well as he had hoped when he was younger. In looking at him, we can see how his character has shaped his life. At times, we are tempted to say he deserves his unhappiness, but that would be going too far. He does not trust that he is loveable, and he hides behind his cleverness and cynicism and behind his quirks and compulsions. He is guarded about trusting himself and trusting people and he just keeps his distance. In some ways, his distrust has been carefully learned. His friend Jack is almost sleazy in his deceptions, and there is a painful meeting with his ex-wife and her new husband at Jack’s wedding. But it is a major impediment to intimacy and love and happiness.
There are a couple of beautifully tender, brilliant scenes when Miles and Maya talk about wine. It starts as a talk about something they both understand, and we see them losing themselves in their shared knowledge and communicating something about their passion and hope. Then the whole art of making wine – especially from the fragile Pinot Noir grape – becomes a wonderful metaphor of adult growth, aging and maturing in the bottles of our circumstances. Maya sees something in Miles, although he seems to work to keep it hidden. He trusts her enough to let her read the manuscript of his book. Then they part on bad terms when Jack’s betrayal of Stephanie’s trust is revealed, and Miles returns to Jack’s Armenian wedding and his lonely life. Payne gives Miles and Maya another chance, and the movie has a hopeful, perhaps a happy ending.