Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Bottle Shock

By Elise Nakhnikian

You know that famous hitchhiking scene from It Happened One Night, the one where Clark Gable can’t get anyone to stop so Claudette Colbert takes over and gets them a ride right away?

That’s repeated in Bottle Shock, but instead of flashing a little leg, Sam (Rachael Taylor) flashes her tits. And that pretty well sums up this movie, which never reaches for a scalpel when there’s a samurai sword at hand.

“Based on a true story,” Bottle Shock is about how California wines won the respect of the wine snobs of the world. Back in 1976 – when, as the movie self-consciously reminds us, car tires still went flat, young people still wore their hair long, and casual sexism was rampant even in California – a panel of blue-ribbon French wine experts held a blind taste test between California and French wines. To the chagrin of the judges, the winning wines, both red and white, came from California.

The decision shocked the wine world. As Bottle Shock cowriter/director/editor/distributor Randall Miller puts it, in a typically overwritten director’s note, the test results “ignited the enological fire that burnt down the cronyistic forest that triggered the creative earthquake that upset the status quo and opened the world to new pioneers of viniculture and viticulture around the globe.”

There’s plenty of talk about the significance of the decision in the movie, too, but the shock of the title is missing, since the mechanical way the film cuts between two stories makes the victory feel more inevitable than astonishing.

The main storyline follows Jim Barrett (a puffy Bill Pullman), a prickly ex-lawyer turned winemaker in Napa Valley, and his golden-boy hippie son, Bo (Chris Pines), who works for his dad as a self-described “cellar rat.” Jim and Bo are constantly sparring, mostly about Bo’s lack of ambition but sometimes about Bill’s pessimism and pigheadedness. Just in case you didn’t pick up on the tension between the two, they periodically climb into a boxing ring and go few rounds.

We also meet Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), the English ex-pat who set up the taste test. We see him first in Paris, then touring Napa to find the right wines, and then back home in Paris to conduct the test. Rickman is slyly charming, as usual, as a steel-spined Englishman so snooty he can sneer even while drinking, but even he overplays here. Faced with a piece of KFC chicken or a chipful of guacamole, he acts like a kid being forced to eat spinach, barely able to choke down this barbarian American fare.

Spurrier’s sidekick is an American named Maurice (Dennis Farina), the owner of a neighboring business and apparently the only person ever to enter Spurrier’s wine shop. Maurice is on hand mostly for comic relief (Dennis Farina? As a wine lover?), but he also serves as the audience for some of the metaphor-clogged speeches Miller likes to write.

People in Bottle Shock are prone to proclamations like “great wine is a great art” and “from hardship comes enlightenment.” When they’re not spouting off, chances are good that they’re sniffing and sipping at a glass of wine and then making significant eye contact. Miller and his cowriters throw in funny bits to lighten things up, but the jokes are heavy-handed too. In one totally gratuitous scene, Spurrier praises the local wines to the owner of a Napa bar and she snaps: “What were you expecting to find? Thunderbird?” Yeah! take that, you France-loving British wine snob!

Mike Ozier’s sun-drenched cinematography makes life in the vineyards look appealing, but we learn surprisingly little about what goes into growing grapes or making wine. Then again, that’s probably just as well, since this script would have crammed all that information into another overstuffed monologue.

Miller seems to believe that anything worth saying once is worth saying twice or more. At the same time, most of the characters and relationships are seriously underdeveloped. We see a lot of Sam, the beautiful intern at Barrett’s Chateau Montelena, and of Gustavo (Six Feet Under’s Freddy Rodriguez), who works there with Bo. Rodriguez does good work as always, giving Gustavo a gravity and sense of purpose that make us care what happens to him. But his and Sam’s stories – not to mention the romantic triangle they sort of form with Bo – are so underdeveloped you wind up wondering why they’re included at all.

A few years ago, Sideways used its characters’ relationships with wine as a way into their relationships with each other and with themselves. Wine was sometimes a metaphor there too, but it was always a living thing, with a complicated story of its own.

Bottle Shock looks at everything and everybody as a symbol for something else. And that robs them of the specificity that might have made them fascinating.

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