Monday, September 29, 2008

Bottle Shock

"Bottle Shock" is the saga of one man's ascent from wine hobbyist to perfectionist. It is also the saga of this one man's son and his ascent from slacker surfer to savior of the family business. Then there's a British snob, and his journey to a raised consciousness about the limitations of his own supposed taste. Oh, and there's the story of the son of a migrant worker who goes on to make his own vintner legacy. For a movie with so many things going on, "Bottle Shock" is surprisingly boring, flat, and entirely without craft. Just how flat it is may also be a bit of a shocker, considering how consistently stilted and ridiculous the characterization is.

As the opening credits roll, we get a sweeping and majestic view of California's own Napa Valley, home to endless golden hills filled with all types of grapes. The music plays and in case you still didn't know where the movie was set after being beat over the head with wineries, or if you just couldn't wait another minute to find out, we also see a "Welcome to Napa Valley" sign amidst the grapes. This is a movie that takes its cinematic cues from Disney's Soarin' Over California, but unfortunately I neither get a nose-full of grape mist, nor do I get to dangle above the screen and kick my feet gleefully over Bill Pullman's head. Alas, I must remain looking up at the screen as redundancies melt any enthusiasm I had about this little self-distributed indy movie that could. Classic rock music plays as the camera tilts and swirls through some late-hippy dopers out in the trees. Whoa, seventies dude! And then the text "PARIS" comes up on the screen right on top of -- no kidding -- a shot of the Eiffel Tower. EVERYTHING IN THIS MOVIE FEELS LIKE IT IS BEING TOLD TO ME IN CAPITAL LETTERS.

(Actually, quite a good poster).

Very early on, the film presents itself with two central questions: "Will wine snob Alan Rickman find good wine in California?" and "Will vintner Bill Pullman's wine defeat the French snobs?" These are both yes or no questions, with absolutely no possibility for maybe, and writer/director Randall Miller telegraphs the answers like a sports fan yelling at the television during a last minute hail mary pass: YES YES YES YES YES. From moment one you know exactly the entire story of the film. How could it go any other way? This lack of an in between is the film's central, glaring flaw. Everything is black or white, yes or no, with no hint of subtlety or emotional gray area. No one's job is ever on the line; you are just hired or fired. Pullman's son Bo is either slacker or hero. The wine is either perfect or sent to the dump. How boring.

The weirdest, most pretentious instance of this black and white is the love triangle between Rachael Taylor's character Sam, the sexy wine intern, Bo and his friend Gustavo (played by the much-better-than-this-movie Freddy Rodriguez). First, Gustavo makes some amazing wine, which prompts Sam to sleep with him. Then, Bo's wine is actually a fabled kind of perfect wine, which again prompts Sam to sleep with him. When Gustavo gets fired, his relationship with Sam is completely dropped and the film ends with another sweeping, helecopter view of Sam running into Bo's arms, swept off her feet and music swelling. Based on what the shameless camerawork is telling me, the audience is obviously supposed to be moved by this triumph. Instead, the writing is so bad that it just comes off like Sam has slutted her way through the entire movie.

Throughout all of this frank, blunt storytelling, there is one shining light: Bill Pullman is getting better with age. Even with all of the silly outbursts and oh-so-sad-but-obviously-fixable dilemma's, I think Mr. Pullman is actually getting to be a pretty good actor. I remember an interview he had about David Lynch's "Lost Highway," in which Pullman says to the camera something like: I don't need to know how to play the saxaphone, I just have to sell it like I do. This salesman attitude seems to be dropping away, and Pullman gives a more natural, likable, and sometimes effortless performance. If only Miller could have taken a cue and stopped trying so hard.

By the film's end I wasn't exhausted. I was just bored, beaten into the ground, and entirely disappointed. A few chuckles and some good Bill Pullman cannot save the movie from its own inept direction, hammer-blunt script and slew of cliches. Go watch something else.

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