As everyone and their pet turtle have opined, this is an enjoyable little movie. A truly compelling narrative that doesn't involve things going boom is a rare occurrence in American movies it seems. I'm not necessarily complaining about that because I like things that blow up real good.
No, more to my point, a compelling narrative about the little moments in a realistic depiction of everyday life is one of the hardest pieces of fiction to create, because it can easily collapse into a boring account of toenail trimmings and flatulence. For instance, I think that's what happened with Alexander Payne's previous movie, About Schmidt. Throughout About Schmidt, we follow a basic sad sack who's just retired only to discover that his major moment of breaking free from the chains that bind him is the ability to pee standing up after his wife dies (she forbade him due to the common male condition of "mystery stream" where the first shot of the morning can go anywhere - see Me, Myself & Irene for a hilarious depiction of said condition). The only fun, outstanding moment in that flick is when a very nekkid Kathy Bates hops into the hot tub with Schmidt, thinking she's going to get a little. Other than that, I wondered why Payne just keeps picking on this poor schlub until the credits roll. Sideways manages to achieve the correct ratio between revealing moments and pedestrian moments.
Two buddies go on a weeklong wine tasting road trip through California's wine country prior to the wedding of one of them, as a sort of last hurrah. For the guy about to be married, this last hurrah means boinking anything with a concave surface and a pulse (and you get the idea that a pulse might be optional). The other guy is recently gaping-wound divorced, is facing the possible final rejection of his latest failed novel (a 700-plus page opus to painful relationships, natch), and hides his alcoholism behind wine snobbery.
Neither of these guys are in a "good place," as it were. This setup scrapes up against a bias I've developed towards stories with nothing but flawed characters, so this movie walked a fine line with me. The big trend in postmodern writing seminars is filling the space between the bindings with mottled and broken characters utterly lacking noble motives because supposedly this makes them more organic and real, and avoids the traps of the supposed one-dimensional characters of commercial fiction (see Dean Koontz). Well, compost heaps are organic and real, but no one wants to spend a lot of time in their presence - a little factoid that our postmodern lit weenies would do well to become acquainted with. The primary success of Sideways is that it makes these human trainwrecks likeable (or at least entertaining), and thus we care about what happens to them and those they meet. In other words, their foibles do not define them (as in bad postmodern novels (*koff* DeLillo *koff*)), their foibles are just part of the mix. This movie is not afraid to be funny, and manages to be funny without betraying the characters or their situation.
As indicated by the Oscar nominations and critical praises, the bright candy shell of this movie is the stellar acting. Paul Giamatti's reaction when he discovers his (character's) ex-wife is pregnant is one of those moments movie buffs will carry in memory from that point on. My wife exclaimed out loud in response to it. I think a couple of the plants in the room behind me wilted in empathy. Somewhere out in the neighborhood a lonesome coyote howled.
The movie is a hard "R" for lotsa sexual situations that even young teens should probably be shielded from lest their little souls be scarred from the gestalt of adult woogiewoogie. A recent novel I read, The Stupidest Angel by Michael Moore, has a great warning in the intro pages to the effect that the book contains bad words that grandma wouldn't approve of and sex scenes between people over the age of 40. This same counsel would definitely apply to Sideways.