Movie Review: Bottle Shock
By Matthew Huntley
August 19, 2008
Bottle Shock would be a good movie were it not for all its unnecessary melodrama and hokey soliloquies. It tells the interesting true story of what led to the infamous "Judgment of Paris," or the 1976 wine tasting competition in which California triumphed over France. Not many people expected California to win, but the winning chardonnay - from Chateau Montelena, 1973 - made such a cultural impact it earned a spot in the Smithsonian.
The man who helped make this happen, albeit unintentionally, was Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a British wine merchant living in Paris. When we meet this "wine snob," his business isn't doing very well, at least not compared to his friend Maurice's (Dennis Farina) limousine service. So Spurrier decides to research the wines of California's Napa Valley to see how they compare to the French and organize a blind taste test. His goal, ultimately, is to create enough frenzy and publicity to increase sales.
In Napa Valley, we meet a host of characters, some more interesting than others. There's Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a former lawyer and owner of Chateau Montelena, whose dream was always to run a successful winery but who now finds himself heavily in debt and unable to rely on his golden-locks son, Bo (Chris Pine). Bo is a California surfer-hippie who's not entirely without ambition and gets things done when he puts his mind to it. Whenever Jim and Bo get frustrated, they box each other in the backyard, although I could never tell if it was actually therapeutic for either one.
The other players include Gustavo (Freddy Rodríguez), who makes his own red wine on the side, and the beautiful new intern, Sam (Rachel Taylor). She creates a love triangle between herself, Bo and Gustavo. In a mildly amusing scene, the three of them and their friend Joe (Eliza Dushku) have fun with the locals when they bet Gustavo can name a wine and its vintage just by tasting it, which is their routine hustle.
There were many aspects of Bottle Shock I enjoyed, especially the playful smugness and sarcasm of Alan Rickman. Rickman is the kind of actor who can generate a laugh simply by reacting to something. It doesn't matter to what degree. Rickman could be talking, cleaning a window or attempting to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken and it's somehow automatically funny. Bill Pullman and Chris Pine are also good and their familial transition gives the movie its heart and soul.
But there were too many times when it seemed like the movie was searching for conflict it didn't need. One of these is when Bo, Sam and Gustavo pass a truck driver who makes an offensive comment because Gustavo is Hispanic. This particular scene felt out of place - there was nothing comical, insightful or revealing about it. It seemed to exist just so the movie could fill time.
Another is when Gustavo makes a perfunctory speech about hard work and what wine means to him and his father. When he begins to talk, a maudlin piano riff kicks in that had me rolling my eyes. And what's with the love triangle between Bo, Sam and Gustavo? It just sort of dissipates without getting resolved. If the movie didn't care about it, why should we?
Bottle Shock was an audience favorite at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and it's not hard to see why. It's bright, happy and hopeful, but I don't think it's very good storytelling. I loved looking at the movie, with all its bright yellows, heavy oranges and lush greens, which fill the corner of every outside shot. Mike Ozier's photography of the Napa Valley, especially the aerial shots, are also striking and beautiful, even if they are overused. But these weren't enough to fill the void left by the uneven screenplay.
Bottle Shock isn't worth a trip to theater, but you'd be fine to watch it at home in high definition. Just make sure you have a bottle of wine nearby. If there's one thing this movie does well, it's making you want a glass of fine wine, particularly from California.