In vino veritas is the first thing I thought of when I was watching director/writer Alexander Payne’s (About Schmidt) new film, Sideways . Naturally, the marketing team got there first with the connection, but it is true. This is a film that uses wine as a metaphor for life. Sideways is a small film because it never goes beyond itself; it stays courageously focused on a one week journey taken by quasi-middle-aged friends Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) through central California’s vineyards.
Miles is a kind of loser, a divorced high school history teacher from San Diego and Jack is a cad who is about to get married. Their week together is a bachelor’s last fling for Jack . Jack, a different kind of loser, certainly gets everything he can out of the time before he is to be married.
Jack is the mirror image of Miles. Miles has a sense of his dignity, morals, and an incredible knowledge and appreciation for wine. He is also indecisive and tentative. Jack is impetuous, immature, cocky, self-centered and has not an iota of insight. They meet up with a waitress, Maya (Virginia Madsen), whom Miles knows from previous visits to the area and Jack meets a single mother, Stephanie (Sandra Oh). In one exquisite conversation with Maya, while Jack is having it on with Stephanie, Miles describes himself in terms of the Pinot Noir grape, and Maya responds in kind.
Day by day, Miles struggles with Jack's cavalier attitude toward women and his upcoming commitment. They end up having to escape the naked (literally) wrath of another woman’s husband because of Jack’s amoral lifestyle (and that’s putting it mildly.)
In the mid-1970’s I got to learn how to make wine and did so for four years – about 200 gallons a year, made of a mixture of Grenache (2/3) and Alicante (1/3) grapes. When our nuns first came to the US from Italy in 1932, they drank wine the way we drink soda. To save money, one of the sisters learned how to make the wine. She continued to make just enough for our convent for decades. When she was transferred, another sister and I got to learn how to make wine from a retired New York firefighter, who learned from his father. What a story. You wouldn’t believe where we got our oak barrels from. Anyway, from this experience I can say that the main character Miles certainly knows his wine and the winemaking process. It made me enjoy the film all the more.
You just have to remember that Jack is a royal jerk, and some of the situations and scenes are distasteful to say the least. The film, therefore, won’t appeal to everyone.
The ending for Miles is left hanging, like grapes on a vine. But as with a good crop of grapes, you can pretty much guess the outcome.
There is a scene in French Kiss (Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline) a film in the more PG-13 category, where Kline's character explains a school botany project to Ryan. I like that wine metaphor very much, as well.
In vino veritas.