Thursday, August 21, 2008

Bottle Shock: A vintage tale

Bottle Shock (2008) • View trailer for Bottle Shock
3.5 stars (out of five). Rated PG-13, for brief profanity, fleeting drug use and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.21.08
Buy DVD: Bottle Shock • Buy Blu-Ray: Bottle Shock [Blu-ray]

In terms of French cultural pride, nothing could have been more catastrophic.

Consider it from their point of view: They may have had to acknowledge American military superiority during World War II, may have had to surrender the field in terms of subsequent economic clout, may have watched in horror as boorish, lowest-common-denominator marketing behemoths such as McDonald's and Disneyland infiltrated the entire known universe ... but France always had its wine.
As Bo (Chris Pine, right) watches from a safe distance, visiting British wine
connoisseur Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) dubiously eyes the jelly glass that
holds a small-time Napa Valley winemaker's prize vintage. The supercilious
Spurrier little realizes that, after the first swallow, his opinion of California
wines will begin to climb ... and that's only the beginning.

No matter what else, the French knew they remained superior when it came to transforming grapes into a libation that had fueled metaphor-laden poets for the same hundreds of years that winemaking techniques had been perfected in regions such as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Chablis.

In matters of The Grape, the French reigned supreme ... and they never let the rest of the world forget it.

Until that horrible afternoon in 1976, during what came to be known as the Judgment of Paris.

Director/co-writer Randall Miller's Bottle Shock employs this actual event — so famous that its results have been preserved for eternity in the Smithsonian (and I'll bet the French don't think much of that) — as the setting for an amiable little drama that lacks the focus and greater screenwriting savvy of Sideways, but nonetheless tells an engaging story.

Or, to construct an appropriate metaphor, Miller's film is more Merlot than Cabernet: certainly pleasing to the palate, but not nearly as complex or precise.

The problem, mostly, is one of focus. One must greet any film that "requires" four screenwriters with suspicion, because the results often are overcooked in an effort to be all things to all viewers. When Miller and fellow writers Jody Savin, Ross Schwartz and Lannette Pabon concentrate on the actual details leading up to that fateful day during our bicentennial year — and particularly when Alan Rickman is on the screen — everything is a droll and understated delight.

Unfortunately, too much screen time is wasted on the good-natured hijinks and lack of focus from the other young, counter-culture protagonists. It's as if Miller & Co. worried that their wine-drenched narrative might be considered as stuffy as French arrogance to teen and twentysomething viewers, and therefore found it "necessary" to sex up these proceedings with a contrived romantic triangle involving the frequently underdressed Rachael Taylor, who added a similar dose of pulchritude to last year's Transformers.

Hey, she's charming, intelligent and easy on the eyes ... but she's also frequently distracting here, particularly when the screen time could be better spent on some fairly essential backstory elements that never get properly addressed.

The year is 1976, and the narrative initially bounces back and forth between two settings, starting in Paris, where wine connoisseur and displaced Briton Steven Spurrier (Rickman) scrambles for a way to put his lovingly designed but invariably empty tasting room/retail outlet on the map. His next-door neighbor, the mildly vulgar but definitely more savvy Maurice (Dennis Farina), insists that part of the problem is Spurrier's blinkered purchasing instincts.

Steven claims to celebrate the entire, richly varied universe of wine, and yet, as Maurice points out, with the exception of two or three lonely bottles, everything in the shop is French.

Or, as another character will put it, a bit later, when assessing Spurrier: "You're a snob. It ... limits you."

This plants a seed, and we watch it take root in Rickman's marvelously expressive features.

Elsewhere, in the Napa Valley, the rather tightly wound Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), owner of the Chateau Montelena Winery, has been driving his staff crazy with the perfectionist's zeal he has employed while trying to fine-tune the perfect Chardonnay. In debt to his eyeballs and with a divorce behind him — we're left to assume that the ex-wife probably had no patience for this "hobby" — Jim also is on the verge of destroying the relationship with his college-age son, Bo (Chris Pine), a party-hardy hedonist trying to retain his hold on the '60s, but who nonetheless has his father's artistry when it comes to wine.

Bo's best friend and fellow Chateau Montelena employee, Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez, well recognized from TV's Ugly Betty), is similarly obsessed with wine, and has been secretly crafting his own pet red.

Their little universe gets a bit livelier with the arrival of Sam (Taylor), a sexy young college student who has signed on to be an intern at Chateau Montelena. Her supposed qualifications notwithstanding, we never hear much in the way of actual viticultural knowledge from Sam; aside from her willingness to handle scut-work, she seems present more as decorative eye-candy ... much like the also aggressively sensuous Eliza Dushku, who runs the local bar where Bo and Gustavo hustle unsuspecting marks by pretending the latter can detect a concealed wine's vintage and year with but a few tastes.

At such times, it feels like Miller is trying to channel Dazed and Confused or some other youth-culture flick. And he doesn't do a very good job of it.

Fortunately, things improve once Spurrier crosses the Atlantic and arrives in the Napa Valley, dubious but determined to investigate the — in his view — oxymoronic phenomenon of California winemaking. Back in Paris, Spurrier has set the wheels into motion for an upcoming tasting event; he's now in the States to add a bit of depth to the field.

Jim, after meeting Spurrier, remains suspicious that the other man's actual goal is to enter some California efforts into a contest that'll no doubt be rigged, and designed solely to allow the French to remain contemptuous of any upstart Americans silly enough to believe they know how to make wine.

The interplay between Pullman and Rickman is understated and hilarious, in great part because Jim really does have Spurrier's number, and they both know it.

"Why," Jim asks, possibly rhetorically, as yet another encounter goes awry, "don't I like you?"

"Because you think I'm an ass," Spurrier answers, with rueful candor. "And I'm not, really. It's just that I'm British, and you're not."

If Miller and his other writers could uncork more lines like that, they'd have a much better film. As it is, we must be content with the occasional zinger.

Bo, finally demonstrating the business sense that his father has despaired of ever finding in the lad, is more open-minded. He and Sam take Spurrier to several neighboring wineries; each visit is a fresh revelation. Again, Rickman's measured responses are impeccably understated: British to the core, Spurrier can't allow himself to actually show anything approaching excitement ... but with each sip, slurp and slosh, the man's eyes dance with a giddy fire, and only superhuman effort controls his spontaneous wonder and enthusiasm.

The gears begin to grind in a different direction behind his eyes, and we see something along the lines of craftiness enter the equation: Might these upstart, unheralded California wines actually serve as respectable competition in his upcoming tasting, back in Paris?

The nascent thought is as tantalizing as each new Napa Valley discovery.

Even at this point, as the narrative comes into focus, the film occasionally wanders into awkward side issues. Bo's brief visit with his mother, happily ensconced with aristocratic twits in Carmel, seems a clumsy solution to a temporary cash shortage; the degree to which it widens the wedge between Bo and his father feels equally contrived.

And given the time we spend with Gustavo and his own carefully nurtured wine, and the nods of approval from everybody lucky enough to try it, the film's complete failure to bring this side element to closure is extremely frustrating. Does Gustavo's wine get selected for Spurrier's tasting? If so, how does it fare? If not, what becomes of it?


On the other hand, an eleventh-hour crisis involving Jim's Chardonnay is both suspenseful and heartbreaking; it also gives the story reason for a brief visit to UC Davis and a chat with an oenology expert (Bradley Whitford, in an appropriately professorial cameo). I must say, however, that the location photography doesn't resemble any part of the university campus that I've ever seen, but then I imagine Miller had trouble finding a UCD corner that looked like it did in 1976.

Actually, historical verisimilitude is another of the film's strengths: It feels and looks very much like its bicentennial setting, down to everybody's clothing and the quieter, laid-back Napa Valley atmosphere ... although, even then, our neighboring wine country wasn't as deserted as it appears here. The "serious" wine world may have ignored us at the time, but we Northern Californians already were fully aware of the viticultural delights to be found. Car traffic may not have been what it is now, but it certainly was evident.

Ultimately, then, Bottle Shock isn't as smooth as I might wish, but it builds considerable good will along the way. The aftertaste is pleasing, and I've no doubt it'll drive interest to Chateau Montelena, Stag's Leap, GustavoThrace and the other wineries mentioned in the concluding text crawl.

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