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August 12, 2008 |

By Ted Boynton | Film | August 12, 2008 |

In 1976, a British wine merchant living in Paris arranged for the first formal blind tasting between California and French wines, known informally as The Judgment of Paris. For oenophiles, the result was the equivalent of the Beatles finding a worthy foil in the Rolling Stones. French wine had dominated the scene for hundreds of years, with only mild challenges from a few Italian reds and German Rieslings. No one was on the same playing field with the French until the Californians came along to give them a run for their money.

Bottle Shock, director Randall Miller’s take on the contest, presents a bit of a conundrum. It’s a likeable film conceptually and visually, with a largely excellent cast. It has the confidence to settle in and tell a tale on its own sweet time, without treating the viewer like an idiot regarding wine terminology. Bottle Shock never fully engages the viewer, however, due largely to a curious decision about the plot, some jarring editing choices, and an off-putting performance from one of the leads.

Choosing to focus the film almost exclusively on the west side of the Atlantic, Bottle Shock begins with the set-up: Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), an Englishman clinging to the fringes of French wine society, is talked into a publicity stunt by freewheeling American shopkeeper Maurice (Dennis Farina), a tour operator. Spurrier uses his meager political capital to lure several prestigious French wine experts into serving as the judges of a tasting competition between traditional French labels and a collection of the best California wines Spurrier can scrape together.

The action quickly shifts to California, where former lawyer/drone Jim Barrett, who left his career to become a winemaker, faces mounting debt as his expensive and painstaking efforts marinate on the vines surrounding his Chateau Montelena winery. Jim and son Bo (Chris Pine) work with a crew of immigrant farmworkers to tend their vines. Among the laborers is Gustavo Brambila (Freddy Rodriguez), a talented winegrower with aspirations of his own in the wine business. As if the bank looming over them weren’t enough, friction between Jim and Bo threatens to derail the family’s work before it can ripen, as Jim simmers over Bo’s hippie surfer lifestyle and Jim’s own sense of inadequacy. The arrival of blond intern/cutey Sam (Rachael Taylor) heightens tensions by creating a competition between Bo and Gustavo.

When Spurrier arrives and announces the competition, the Barretts’ internal struggles play out in the shadow of the larger stakes of Napa Valley vintners’ efforts to be taken seriously in the industry. Spurrier tours various wineries in Northern California, stockpiling samples of worthy opponents for the French. Bottle Shock tracks both stories in parallel, along with their occasional intersections, but focuses primarily on the Barretts’ travails, including the headbutting between suspicious Jim and optimistic Bo over whether they should participate in the tasting. At the risk of a minor spoiler, if you’ve ever been to the movies before, you won’t be surprised that they overcome their differences and end up in the competition.

This easy guess leads to Bottle Shock’s primary problem — the election to focus on a formulaic familial drama instead of the culturally significant international showdown, as if the filmmakers weren’t confident enough in the audience to forsake such easy convention. Bottle Shock’s raison d’être is an intriguing historical event that begs for an examination of the larger question of how the stage was set — at a minimum, some consideration of what was happening on the other side of the pond. Instead, the undercooked family drama manages to consume far too much of the film, while Rickman and the larger conflict devolve into secondary players.

Indeed, Rickman is on-screen far too little during Bottle Shock’s run time. His performance is typically delightful, understated and restrained, and he skillfully blends the bleary desperation of a failing wine shop owner with the haughty snobbery of a British oenophile deigning to sip suspect colonial product. Bottle Shock would have been well-served to focus on Rickman’s relationship with the wine establishment in Paris and the cultural underpinnings that caused this particular wine competition to have such a dramatic impact on the industry’s self-image and, more importantly, consumer perception of the industry. The few scenes in Bottle Shock that sniff at these possibilities show what might have been, with a typically brilliant Dennis Farina as the somewhat vulgar provocateur to Rickman’s buttoned-up Brit. With Rickman at one’s disposal, it is perplexing indeed to focus on some Northern California hijinks.

The choice isn’t unpleasant during the time that Bill Pullman is on-screen, giving us his best Weathered Patriarch performance. Pullman, who may be becoming his generation’s John Mahoney, is convincing as a pressured father whose family has crumbled around him, with the remainder of his life poised to do the same if he doesn’t make the bank note on his land. Pullman and Rickman share the screen in several scenes, and their strong work demonstrates the great potential of Bottle Shock.

Unfortunately, Bottle Shock’s lynchpin is Chris Pine as Chateau Montelena scion Bo Barrett. Sporting a shaggy hippie haircut and a three-day beard, Pine looks the part of a 1970s winemaker’s son, but Pine is not remotely up to the task of functioning as the film’s centerpiece. Alternating a surly stoner daze with ersatz puppy dog charm, Pine creates a tremendously unsympathetic character about whom the only strong feeling likely to occur is a recurring sense of déjà vu recognition, leading to the eventual realization that Pine is a cross between Bo Duke and Bam-Bam from “The Flintstones.” (Star Trek enthusiasts officially have cause for concern, given that Pine will play Captain Kirk in the upcoming prequel.)

It doesn’t help Bam-Bam that he spends much of the film getting blown off the screen by Freddie Rodriguez (Federico of “Six Feet Under”), who has convincingly come into his own as an actor with turns in unusual fare such as Scott Caan’s Dallas 362 and Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. As real-life vintner Gustavo Brambila, a pioneering Latino winemaker who started out as a field hand, Rodriguez wisely underplays the role and delivers a standout performance. Even when handed a clanging anvil of a speech about being born with winery dirt in his blood, Rodriguez rises to the occasion.

As the boys’ romantic interest, Rachael Taylor also fares well on the acting front, but her role seems half-heartedly imagined, apparently patched on to the story to create a completely unnecessary objet d’amore for Bam-Bam and to ratchet up some dramatic tension through a predictable love triangle with Gustavo. Despite these inherent limitations, Taylor convinces as an independent spitfire and brings the surfer-girl sexy with conviction. One keeps wondering, however, why she’s there at all other than to provide motivation for Bo and Gustavo to drive the story forward.

Taylor’s character also features prominently in the Bottle Shock’s most severe misstep, a throwaway scene that temporarily derails the film. After Taylor’s arrival and some obligatory flirting with Bo, she settles in as part of the work crew, leading to a scene in which she cleans a piece of equipment with a water hose. As the hose soaks Taylor’s hair and shirt, a crew of Latino farmworkers looks on appreciatively, joined by Bo, who leans back to ogle Taylor. The scene is about a half-step above a Whitesnake video, bizarre and utterly out of place. A standalone bit contributing nothing to the story might make sense if it helped to develop the characters or had some independent significance. Here, it’s just a creepy, leering detour, with a vaguely sexist mis-use of Taylor that is at odds with the tone the film generally strives to create.

Bottle Shock faces the same puzzling quandary as its least essential piece, however, the ultimate question about any film: Why is it here? The core concept is compelling, to be sure, but it’s prevented from blossoming because of its constant back-burnering in service to the half-baked familial soap opera. As a result, nothing gets fully cooked. Great wine and a fine meal are fantastic, but if you can’t deliver decent food, better to drink yourself into oblivion and skip dinner.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

But Son, Always Serve Wine

Bottle Shock / Ted Boynton

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