One early evening in June, Robert Evans walked into a screening room at the Fox lot in Los Angeles and people started to whisper. Despite not-so-great health, the 74-year-old producer of Chinatown, Urban Cowboy and Marathon Man had made his way to West Pico Boulevard to see Sideways, a movie about a road trip through the Santa Barbara wine country.
Evans's presence wasn't the only sign that Sideways might find an audience besides wine geeks. The film, which is slated to be released nationwide this month, was directed by 43-year-old Alexander Payne, who, with his films Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt, has built a successful career out of taking quirky topics into the mainstream.
Sideways is definitely quirky. The film focuses on Miles, played by American Splendor's Paul Giamatti, a lonely oenophile who takes his handsome, goofy best friend, Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church, on a trip to Santa Barbara wine country. Miles hopes to introduce Jack to the subtleties of Pinot Noir. Jack, who is about to get married, just wants to chase a few skirts. Between visiting Santa Barbara's tasting rooms and vineyards, and hanging out at the Hitching Post, a steak house that makes its own Pinot Noir, Miles and Jack become romantically entangled with two wine-obsessed women: Maya, a waitress and horticulture student played by Virginia Madsen, and Stephanie, a tasting-room employee played by Payne's wife, Sandra Oh. A lot of ugly trouble ensues. But the Santa Barbara wine region remains spectacular throughout.