Friday, August 15, 2008
The unexpected success of Sideways (the indie film about the mid-life crisis of two men on a wine trip to Santa Barbara) will likely make audiences open to the wine backdrop of Bottle Shock. But in terms of content, Bottle Shock is actually more a kindred spirit to the wine documentary Mondovino that explored large corporations, globetrotting wine consultants, and old, established French wineries fighting to hold onto traditions. Like Mondovino , Bottle Shock looks in part to what drives someone to make wine and to how the wine industry works. But whatever draws filmgoers to Bottle Shock they won't be disappointed.
When we meet up with Chateau Montelena's Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), he's nothing more than an in debt farmer chasing a dream. He's got a slacker son Bo (Chris Pine with an incredibly bad 70s wig) who doesn't have his father's commitment and passion for wine. Add in to the mix a Mexican worker named Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez) who makes his own wine on the side and an eager young intern (Rachel Taylor), and you have the California contingent of this wine showdown.
Back in France, a couple of expatriates - the British Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) and the American Maurice (a dryly funny and low key Dennis Farina) - contemplate what they could do to improve business at Spurrier's French wine shop and academy. Maurice notes that California wines are beginning to draw attention. But Spurrier initially balks at the insinuation But then they come up with is something of a publicity stunt. Spurrier decides to stage a French-American tasting to determine the best wines in both countries. With approval from France's prestigious Institute of Appellations of Origin, Spurrier heads of to Napa-Sonoma to see what the competition has to offer. The snobbish Spurrier doesn't expect to find anything to please his palate, and he's not much impressed with the laidback, hippie crowd he encounters in California. But then he starts to taste some wines and enlightenment soon follows.
Bill Pullman and Chris Pine (Kirk in the new Star Trek film) play a father and son who don't always see eye-to-eye in Bottle Shock (Freestyle Releasing)
Bottle Shock narrows its focus to just the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay entry in the blind tasting, completely ignoring the California red (Stag's Leap Wine Cellars) that also scored a victory in 1976. The narrowing of the focus would have been good if it streamlined and tightened the film's plot. But while writer-director Randall Miller looks to just one winery, he lets his film sprawl out in other ways. His script (co-written with Jody Savin, Ross Schwartz and Lannette Pabon) goes off on tangents involving a silly romantic triangle between Bo, the adorable intern Sam, and Gustavo. It also looks to generational conflicts in both the Barrett household and with Gustavo's family. There's also panic at the winery when a vintage looks to have gone bad just before the competition. But a little less of the family melodrama and hokey romantic subplot, and more about the actual winemaking and the wine industry at that time could have improved the film by highlighting its unique elements and leaving the more familiar ones on the side. Plus we never actually get to see Chateau Montelena's winemaker since the film allows Jim Barrett to act like both the winery's owner and winemaker. It's things like this that may make true wine aficionados bristle as they take issue with what's been added in or left out of the film. My husband noted that while it's Chateau Montelena's white that everyone talks about, we only see red grapes in the vineyard, I guess they photograph better. Also, a little more information on France's traditions could have built up the tensions of the blind tasting more effectively. There is supposedly, a rival film in production about the same event and based specifically on George Taber's book Judgment of Paris . Maybe that one would include both the reds and the wines in competition, and offer a slightly different perspective on events.
Alan Rickman as the snobbish Steven Spurrier in Bottle Shock (Freestyle Releasing)
But I would pay to see this film again if only for Rickman's performance. At one point Jim Barrett asks Spurrier, "Why don't I like you?" Spurrier's answer is "because you think I'm an asshole and I'm not. I'm just British and you're not." That line and Rickman's wry, underplayed delivery serves up a moment of screen perfection. While others in the cast overplay (most notably Pullman and Pine), Rickman keeps his performance carefully nuanced and never exaggerated. We may find Spurrier's elitism funny but Rickman keeps it on a very human scale. He's a snob but he's not close-minded. Someone points out that being a snob limits him, and that's when Rickman's Spurrier starts to open his palate to the California wines - and, in a hilarious scenes, maybe even to KFC. Rickman's performance, like so much of his work, is sheer perfection and a delight to watch.
The scenery of Napa and Sonoma is another allure as is the predictable underdog formula at the heart of this film. It's nice to see the French arrogance deflated, and Spurrier's palate expanded. But Miller lacks the control to rein in his film's excesses and occasionally awkward emotionalism (like Gustavo's monologue about the "religion" of winemaking needing to be in your blood). He displays a passion for his material that is most winning but he lacks the craft to make the film an unqualified success.
Freddy Rodriguez as a passionate winemaker in Bottle Shock (Freestyle Releasing)
Bottle Shock (PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexual content and a scene of drug use), which is being distributed by the filmmaker in a DIY manner reflecting his characters' working style, is ultimately a charmer set against a fascinating backdrop of recent wine history. ANd maybe Bottle Shock will do for Chardonnay and Chateau Montelena what Sideways did for Pinot Noir.
Companion viewing: Mondovino, Sideways, Autumn Tale
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