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Shock and soured

Wine film tries too hard to add flavor

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If you decide to start making your own wine, you should be prepared to drink most of it yourself. Your friends will accept a bottle out of politeness and never drink it. Open one at a party and see how many timidly sipped glassfuls you find once everyone has gone home.

But who cares what those squares think: Homemade wine is supposed to taste kind of freaky. I recently opened a bottle of last year’s plum and felt like someone socked me in the face, it was so tart. Not even tart so much as tangy. I can’t imagine a food to pair it with, but splashed over ice with a little wild mint it’s the rustic wine cooler of my dreams.

I always feel like an impostor when I bring a bottle of store-bought wine to a dinner, after feeling like a cheapskate with nervous darting eyes while I’m shopping for it. I used to have a guy at Worden’s get out his price-gun and fake a much higher price for a cheap bottle after I’d bought it, all to impress girls. I started small at first, in the $20 to $30 range, and worked my way up to the high $70s without anyone getting wise, or at least without anyone calling me on it. Part of my scam was to do an intentionally poor job of scratching the price tag off with a fingernail to give the impression that I was actually trying to be modest about bringing such an expensive bottle to the dinner party. It was a very complex practical joke. Very postmodern.

Back to tangy wild flavors. If Bottle Shock ultimately falls short it’s because it doesn’t know which it wants to be: wild and tangy like homemade wine, reveling in its weird notes and off-flavors, or something more elegant to appeal to more discriminating palates. Even its characters seem to inhabit different movies. Ostensibly a romantic comedy about wine, Bottle Shock keeps its cast segregated by age and attractiveness—there’s the young people, and then there’s everyone else.

“Everyone else” includes Dennis Farina, Bill Pullman and Alan Rickman—the kind of cast that looks impressive name for name, but whose onscreen chemistry often leaves a kind of metallic artificial aftertaste. Farina, playing a pushy American living in Paris, seems along for a lark; maybe he didn’t have anything else going on that week, or perhaps director Randall Miller got him to sign a contract hastily written on the back of a napkin after too much chardonnay.

Pullman is Pullman, and Rickman is all Rickman with his withered little smiles and withering gazes. Together the three actors create nothing greater in Bottle Shock than the sum of their parts. Fetching newcomer Rachael Taylor does a lot of tawny flouncing in a role with nothing to offer but empty male fantasy in different forms. At times she’s the hot tomboy who’s more like one of the guys, at times a barefoot harvest maid, at times a walking beer commercial. She’s brainy and deep in that idealized screenwriter way, catching a Hemingway reference but looking wicked hot in those grape-picking shorts, too.

Her blond male counterpart, Scott Pine—together they make the ultimate Aryan-surfer California supercouple—simply tries too hard. It’s really annoying how hard he tries to be cool and beatific and philosophical, strutting around with his resplendent mane and ’70s denim. As an actor, his main motivation seems to be enthusiasm for his period wardrobe. At least he’s got some motivation, though; you can’t say that about everyone in this movie.

It’s not the actors’ fault anyway. The writers also try too hard, pack too much bonding stuff and character-at-a-glance typeage into the first few minutes. There’s too much forced jollity, too many contrived throughlines, too much intellectual show-offing with characters spouting brand-name literature and philosophy, for any of it to come across as genuine. Too much instant community, like “Northern Exposure” set in Napa Valley. For me, there were just too many annoying or distracting things in the first half of Bottle Shock to ever get past the whole suspension-of-disbelief thing. Plus, as the opening credits inform us, the movie is “based on a true story”—or maybe it was “inspired by actual events”—which always leaves me wondering what I’m supposed to do with my disbelief. I welcome a true story/actual events disclaimer like I welcome a curly hair arriving on top of my breakfast omelet.

I’m afraid I’m making Bottle Shock sound a lot worse than it is. It’s not terrible, just not particularly good, either. It finally hits its stride when the main “actual event” starts happening: a landmark 1976 Paris wine-tasting that vaulted California wines to international prominence after a Napa Valley bottle roundly beat the French competition. Unfortunately, that’s not until the last third of the movie, with the first two-thirds a hodgepodge of romantic tangents, overwritten dialogue, wistful longing and wine-porn scenery. I wanted to like it but it never won me over; too eager to impress, and just not all that grape.

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