Does every film festival get the wine movie it deserves? Four years ago, Cannes popped the cork on Jonathan Nossiter‘s “Mondovino,” a rich and full-bodied documentary wherein the subject of winemaking was mainly a means to explore the buzz-kill of globalization and to toast anti-Americanism (at least according to tipsy American critics). Now, with a tip of the glass to “Sideways,” Sundance is pouring “Bottle Shock,” whose fact-based tale of a Napa vineyard’s unlikely splash in our Bicentennial year, sending the French scurrying back to their grapes, tastes more “American” than freedom fries. As this year’s very real market woes turn faith in our exports to escapist fantasy, successful distribution in the U.S. seems all but assured, a slot in Cannes or Venice about as likely as an award-winning Carlo Rossi.
Looking a tad grayer than usual, Bill Pullman plays Jim Barrett, a humble but hardworking Napa entrepreneur who’s perfecting his Chardonnay at Chateau Montelena just in time to court a Parisian Brit (Alan Rickman) in California with a dream to pick Yankee grapes and popularize them abroad.
That the characters of Rickman and Pullman–snooty Europhile Steven Spurrier and ordinary American Jim–will eventually come to terms over a dry white delight is but one of a half-dozen or more unapologetically telegraphed plot developments. We’re never meant to doubt that preppy Jim will patch things up with his longhaired hippie son (Chris Pine), or that the kid will score big with sunny blonde “intern” Sam (Rachael Taylor) despite her momentary attraction to Gustavo Brambilia (Freddy Rodriguez)–who, despite his momentary signs of independent ingenuity, will remain the elder Barrett’s loyal field hand because, you know, this is an all-American story (and true, too!).
Shot late last summer, “Bottle Shock” bears no traces of its rushed post-production schedule. Michael J. Ozier‘s widescreen 35mm images–including more than a few pricey-looking helicopter swoops over the sun-drenched Napa countryside–have been effectively processed and cut for maximum commercial appeal. Several Doobie Brothers‘ tunes, including “Listen to the Music,” do indeed prick up the ears while further clarifying Jim’s fatherly advice that “Woodstock was seven years ago.”
Directed and co-written by Randall Miller, “Bottle Shock” is exceedingly eager to please–to a fault, perhaps, depending on your palette. The movie’s twitches of comedy and melodrama could be said to be less spasmodic than those in Miller’s well-deserved box-office flop “Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing and Charm School“–but that would be akin to arguing that the 2001 [yellow tail] Cabernet-Merlot is less fruity than the 2004 [yellow tail] Cabernet-Merlot. A scene of Rickman’s continental gentleman warily digging in a KFC bucket and gnawing a greasy breast with unexpected delight registers as a moment of relatively modest aims. In the oversized cast, Eliza Dushku comes off best as a tough young barmaid named Joe, mainly because her extended cameo allows the least opportunity for embarrassment.
In the end, where a blind taste-test brings “the future” of winemaking (and a spiffy blazer for Pine’s reforming hippie), “Bottle Shock,” albeit true, isn’t a ripe grape so much as pure American corn.
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.