When the stories of real people are adapted into films, you might be surprised how often it’s not a crass attempt to capture money or Academy Awards. The filmmakers get the project moving because they honestly want to do justice to the actual history, and they hope that all that other stuff will come later. The problems with that process are two: first, not every filmmaker knows the right way to do justice; second, the lives of real people are so complex and difficult that it’s a challenge to make them compact enough for a two-hour-long screenplay. 2008’s Bottle Shock suffers from both problems, which makes for a wildly uneven film. Director Randall Miller sincerely wanted to do right by the ragtag vinters who changed the world of wine forever, but his sincerity seems to have blinded him from making an effective movie.
The film tells the story of the 1976 wine competition now known as the “Judgment of Paris.” A British national living in Paris named Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) organizes a wine tasting for America’s bicentennial, pitting the best French wines against some little-known American wines from the Napa Valley. The California vintners are represented by Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), his flighty son Bo (Chris Pine), his employee Gustavo Brambila (Freddy Rodriguez), and new intern Sam (Rachael Taylor), each of whom has their own drama to deal with before they can even get their wine to France.
The screenplay by Miller, Jody Savin, and Ross Shcwartz struggles with properly juggling all of these various characters. Although Rickman’s snobby Britshness may well be the funniest thing in the movie, his disappears from the story for long periods of time. The same fate befalls Rodriguez, who is inexplicably left out of the film’s final 15 or 20 minutes after having been so essential for everything that came before. A number of interesting concepts are introduced, such as Jim and Bo habit of settling their various differences in a boxing ring, but none of them effectively pay off.
Perhaps the uneven storytelling that plagues this film is best summed up by Sam the intern, who is an atrocious character. She could have been an audience surrogate, where the non-wine snobs watching the film could learn about winery as Jim and Bo explain it to her; aside from one short, clumsy scene with Pullman, that doesn’t happen. She could have been in the film to bring dramatic tension between longtime friends Bo and Gustavo via a love triangle; weirdly, the film sets that up by having Sam sleep with Gustavo, and having Bo and Gustavo fall out over it, but the actual resolution of the angle is nowhere to be seen. She’s not in the film to represent the women’s liberation movement ongoing at the time, as the camera leers over her body in the same way that the ranch hands at the winery do, and she seems not to care. Taylor is hardly a spectacular actress, but Meryl Streep could not bring this bizarre character to life.
Aside from Taylor, Miller has assembled a spuerb cast for this film, but in a way that also contributes to the problem. The presence of great actors like the late Dennis Farina and Bradley Whitford in miniscule parts is as jarring as the awkward storytelling, and only makes the movie seem all the more inconsistent. Eliza Dushku is particularly overqualifed for her role as a California bartender – it seems that large chunks of her work were left on the cutting room floor. The only actor in the film who seems right at home in his character is Pine, who has an easy, charismatic confidence which makes it easy to see why his subsequent role was Captain Kirk.
Bottle Shock is also quite uneven visually. A number of scenes which would benefit from a static presentation, such as the conflicts between Pine and Pullman, are instead full of cuts and angles as though they were the dramatic equivalent of a Michael Bay film. It’s almost as if Miller didn’t trust his material enough to keep the audience’s interest, so he tried to spice up his more dialogue-heavy scenes, which is a bad decision in most movies where it happens. The entire film should have been shot with the same loving care that Miller shows for his wide shots of the gorgeous Napa Valley: the less the camera moves and the more sun-drenched landscape it captures, the better.
In the end, Bottle Shock is unable to assemble any real message or tone. It would like to be about the art of winery in the same way that Big Night was about the art of being a chef, but aside from Rickman’s brief “wine is just sunlight held together by water” monologue, there is no suggestion of what artistic beauty exists in great winery. The story would like to have Bo obtain a level of responsibility in his life, but he doesn’t learn it as much as discover it at the most narratively convenient moment. The film would like to develop a romance between Gustavo and Sam, but it can’t shake its ADD long enough to make that happen. It’s admirable, the level of ambtition that leads to this movie wanting to go in so many different directions at once; unfortunately, that scattershot approach is exactly what causes it to fail.
Reviewed by Mark Young