From the husband-and-wife team who brought us such disappointments as Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School and Nobel Son, comes Bottle Shock, their latest cinematic harvest. While arousing trepidations, this latest entry is oft-times digestible, thanks largely to its juicy subject—the startling, industry-rattling 1976 triumph of some California wines over French wines at a watershed blind tasting in Paris.
But it’s questionable whether wine snobs and fussy imbibers of film will offer a toast here. Press notes indicate that filmmakers Randall Miller and Jody Savin “had a minimal knowledge of wine” and this lack of passion shows. What does show is a familiarity with narrative film conventions of the family, romantic and hero-in-trouble kind.
The filmmakers play loosey-goosey with a remarkable true story to deliver a movie with tired elements from the B-movie playbook. Thus, Bottle Shock emerges as a spin on the fabled contentious father-son relationship, with salvation waiting in the oak barrel wings. Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) has dropped out of a marriage and successful career as a real estate attorney to develop and run a California wine country vineyard, now struggling. He’s a cantankerous man with no patience, so it’s not surprising he’s at odds with son Bo (Chris Pine), a clichéd hippie-like dude with wavy blond hair. Jim also locks horns with Gustavo Brambilia (Freddy Rodriguez), his young and gifted field worker who raises his own grapes. Fearing competition, Jim sends Gustavo out the door, but not before Gustavo has bedded Sam (Tasmanian actor Rachael Taylor), the gorgeous young university student Jim has hired as an intern.
As heat grows between Bo and Sam (Gustavo somehow falls out of the picture), other entirely different things are going on in Paris, where Brit ex-pat wine boutique owner Stephen Spurrier (Alan Rickman) grumbles to American ex-pat neighbor Maurice (Dennis Farina) about enlivening his business with a publicity stunt. Maurice suggests the blind wine-tasting thing and Spurrier is off and running.
In fact, he runs into Jim and his vineyard by chance and is astounded by the quality of Jim’s wine. Jim is on the verge of closing his business and, in true B-movie fashion, even resists Spurrier’s invitation to participate in the wine tasting in Paris. Jim relents and ultimately triumphs with his chardonnay. By film’s end, other pairings of the human kind aren’t hard to guess either.
Although hackneyed as heck, Bottle Shock does intermittently provide the refreshing, if fleeting, tingle of a mid-level rosé, but flaws abound. There are intermittent boxing scenes between Jim and Bo that serve as lame visual metaphors for the combative father-son relationship. And what about those sunny California wine country locations sitting in for Paris and environs? Couldn’t all the film’s producers and executive producers make actual French locations happen? Worse, Rickman plays Spurrier as a creepy über-twit with the most risible French accent this side of the Liverpool docks. And a relentless soundtrack of back-then rock tunes drives home the ’70s era with the subtlety of an 18-wheeler.
Pullman does do a great job as the determined winemaker and Pine, Rodriguez, and Taylor are likeable throwbacks to familiar pot-loving, nature-happy California types of the era. The Northern California vineyard scenery is gorgeous, and who won’t kvell when those down-home Californians clobber the arrogant French on their own turf? Still, the conventional Bottle Shock is just too bottled to deliver any box-office shocks.