Dir. Randall Miller. US, 2008,112mins
Bottle Shock is a dramatization of a California winery's rise from obscurity to victory over French wines in a blind-tasting competition in France in 1973. It is based on a true story, and produced by friendly souls from the winemaking region North of San Francisco. The only thing that differentiates this 'movie' from an infomercial is its unbearable feature length. If you have to sit through it, bring plenty to drink.
Filled with hammy performances, awkward writing, and a cloying mood of booster-ism, Bottle Shock plays like a paid media buy. It's hard to imagine who would pay to see this movie - certainly no one in Napa Valley, where you can encounter the landscape and its characters, rather than its screen cliches, for free. Forget about any interest in France (which the movie maligns clumsily), or anywhere else in Europe. Bottle Shock could be the movie that they can't give away. Look for it in a few years on late-night television.
In a landscape that looks like a cross between the vineyards of Sideways (the hit that everyone wants to replicate) and the ranchlands of the long-running US television saga, Bonanza, warm and cantankerous Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) is a lawyer struggling through a second career as a winemaker. Things are poised to change as a spritely blonde consultant, Sam (Rachael Taylor), catches the eye of his black-sheep hippie son, Bo Barrett (Chris Pine), and young Mexican winemaker Gustavo Brambilla (Freddie Rodriguez) has finally created the ultimate vintage. The title refers to the toll that travel to a place like France can take on a wine. Needless to say, the Americans win the competion inspite of that risk. What a country!
As the quirky ensemble hangs on the brink of success, a snobbish British wine merchant in Paris, Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) hears of the upstart vineyard, and an ex-pat American friend, Maurice (Richard Farina), eggs him on to visit California and advance the hackneyed plot. In case you haven't guessed, the two lovers fall in love. Young Gustavo concocts a great vintage, and the dour French can't help but vote it into history.
Randall Miller's direction seems to be aiming at a kind of Seabiscuit mythology of a long shot that wins over all odds. The tone is so earnest that you expect to see Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye coming around the corner at any moment.
Working with a predictable motivational script by Jody Savin, Randall Miller and Ross Schwartz, Alan Rickman can still get a laugh as a Brit who can't bear the French and allies himself with the fledgling Californians. (The French whom he despises are depicted with all the authenticity of George Bush and Dick Cheney's playbook.) Bill Pullman is game as always as the hard-headed Californian who gambles everything for his wine to get its due.
This is poor man's Ron Howard, the kind of movie that Disney might have made if its executives were less smart. Bottle Shock makes you wonder about the wine business. Are people in Napa Valley making so much money that they can throw it away on a pointless film like this, or are they drinking so much of their product that they actually believe Bottle Shock could make money'
Zin Haze Productions
J. Todd Harris
Brenda Lhormer CQ