Paul Giamatti is God. Overweight and balding, with a face like abulldog, the fact that he’s been the leading man in two differentfilms over the last two years brings hope to character actorseverywhere. For far too long, leading-man roles have gone to vacantHollywood beefcakes who can’t act their way out of a paper bag. Theonly reason accomplished actors like Giamatti and John C. Reillyrarely get leading roles is that skittish producers are too scaredto cast actors who don’t have guaranteed selling potential. In”Sideways,” Giamatti gives an Oscar-worthy performance that shouldsilence all the naysayers who say character actors can’t be leadingmen.

The plot of “Sideways” involves Miles (Paul Giamatti), an eighthgrade teacher and frustrated novelist, and his friend Jack (ThomasHaden Church), a B-list actor, taking a week-long trip toCalifornia wine country to celebrate Jack’s last week ofbachelorhood before he gets married. While Miles wants to introducehis friend to the subtle tastes and aromas of fine wine, Jack justwants to get Miles (and himself) laid. Unable to get over hisrecent divorce and saddled with a novel that no publishing housewill touch, Miles has no desire to complicate his life any further.When the two meet Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress, and Stephanie(Sandra Oh), a wine steward, Jack pushes Miles towards Maya, arecent divorcee herself. What happens over the week between the twocouples and the two friends is at turns moving, heartbreaking,hilarious and profound.

One special scene involves a conversation Maya and Miles have onthe back porch of Stephanie’s house. Maya asks Miles why he’s soobsessed with pinot noir wine and, as he explains himself, werealize he’s not just describing the fragility and subtlety of thepinot noir grape but the vulnerability and complexity withinhimself. In Miles, Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor createa “loser” character, revealing the shallowness of such a term.Miles may be a failure on the surface, but underneath he’s got allthe richness and beauty of a fine wine. Over the course of themovie, Giamatti slowly and subtly brings this point to life.

“Sideways” is an amazing movie and proof that Alexander Payne isone of the most important directors alive. Unafraid to make moviesabout flawed people with little or no chance of “winning” in theconventional sense of the word, Payne makes movies that show us thethings most other movies miss. It’s not often a movie can bothentertain and make you think, and “Sideways” does that andmore.