Bottle ShockReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/18/08 11:39:32
In 2006, director/co-writer Randall Miller gave us “Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School,” a dramedy as overly cluttered as its title. The film was a study in forced quirkiness, unearned whimsy, and misplaced nostalgia, three elements that may turn out to be Miller’s trademarks, if his follow-up feature is to be believed.That follow-up is “Bottle Shock,” which aims to tell the true story of how a wine tasting in 1976 revolutionized the international wine scene. There’s enough here for a quaint little biopic - until Miller (and writing partner Jody Savin, retooling an earlier draft by Ross Schwartz) goes overboard with the small town charm and the feel-good fluff. Even though the whole thing is based on reality, there’s barely a moment that goes by that feels real.
In one scene, we visit the town watering hole. It’s your typical grungy bar, except that, of course, Joe the Bartender turns out to be Eliza Dushku, and all the redneck truckers are hardcore wine aficionados, and Freddy Rodriguez hustles the regulars by guessing the brand and vintage of several wines. This is all a joke, right?
Nope. “Bottle Shock” introduces us to a corner of Napa Valley in the mid-70s where everyone, from the landowners to the farmhands to those redneck truckers, lives and breathes for the vineyard. Rodriguez, playing plucky third-generation farmhand Gustavo, gives a couple of lengthy monologues on the joys of wine growing. Later, characters taste a wine so perfect that it makes grown men cry, just from the smell.
Into this community comes British wine snob Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman). Spurrier has been struggling to be recognized in Paris; he wants to be an important figure in Europe’s wine circles, but all he has is a small shop that doubles as a failing wine academy. Egged on by his only customer, flamboyant American Maurice (Dennis Farina, who seems to be doing an over-the-top parody of his Chicago accent and attitude), Spurrier jets off to California to sample American wines.
Here’s the true part: In 1976, the general consensus was that the only good wines being made were from France and Italy; all other regions were concocting swill. Spurrier realized a blind tasting, putting American wines up against French vintages, could alert the wine drinking world to broader opinions.
So Spurrier meets Napa vintner Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), who walked away from a humdrum nine-to-five life in order to build the vineyard of his dreams. This fact, by the way, will be important for the finale, although it’s barely discussed beforehand, and only shows up whenever the movie needs a cheap inspirational jolt. Jim’s not doing well financially, but he also doubts any contests will change his fortunes.
It’s Jim, not Spurrier, who’s sort of the center of the film - that is, if the film were focused enough to have a center. While Spurrier ventures off to sample other wines in the region, effectively turning him into a walking subplot, we follow the misadventures of Jim’s hippie son Bo (Chris Pine). Bo’s a rapscallion wandering through life, and will he learn to settle down and get serious before the closing credits? Or will his wild-child ways provide the film with colorful eccentricity? (Answer: both.) Also note that Bo’s lifestyle results in such ungainly dialogue as “It’s 1976! Woodstock was nine years ago.”
Bo falls for vineyard intern Sam (Rachel Taylor), who is named Sam simply so we can have a scene where she causes confusion, the men thinking Sam was going to be a guy, ha ha. (There may have been a real Sam, but the movie is so eager for the easy joke that it doesn’t matter.) But Gustavo, Bo’s best pal, may also have a thing for Sam, causing an undercooked love triangle that never quite goes anywhere.
It’s Gustavo’s perfect wine that makes grown men cry, by the way. He’s making his own stuff on the side, which is important to the plot only in the sense that the filmmakers insisted on a scene where Jim can get mad at, and later forgive, Gustavo for this moonlighting. It’s one of a dozen superfluous story threads that exist because Miller and Savin don’t have the ability to construct a more genuine story out of this biographical account. They overload the script with sappy sentiment and poorly placed melodrama.
(The worst offender in this case is the bit where Jim, believing his dreams have failed, begs for his old law firm job back. It’s all a set-up for when he discovers his dreams have not failed, and he can whoop and holler in the law firm, sticking it to the cubicle crowd. By the time he chops open a bottle of wine with a samurai sword, right there in the office, you know the movie’s gone too far.)
The film ends back in France, and the wine tasting. Here, Miller’s sudden attention to detail is exasperating. Do we need to hear a lengthy speech explaining everything Spurrier did in the movie? Do we need to spend countless minutes watching French bigwigs sip wine and whisper to each other? This finale is dragged out to ridiculous proportions, then has the audacity to attempt to surprise us with the tasting’s outcome.Aside from Spurrier himself, who benefits from Rickman’s delightfully droll fish-out-of-water performance, everyone here turns out to be incredibly unlikable, quirky small town types who wind up with “pretentious wine snob” as their only linking characteristic. And with the Brit shoved into the background, why should we come to root for any of these people?
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