It seems strange that in the space of two days I have watched two very different films about events taking place in 1976, to coincide with our country's Bicentennial Celebration. The better film, "Man on Wire", is a fun, involving documentary about a strange, unique man who decides to walk a tight rope strung between the towers of the World Trade Center, shortly after the buildings were finished in 1976. Then, there is "Bottle Shock".
I think most people who go to see "Bottle Shock" will probably safely describe it as 'cute' and 'amusing'. And it is. Is there anything wrong with that? No. If you see five or six films a year in the theater, you could do better and you could do worse than "Bottle Shock". It is a perfectly safe choice for a wide range of people. When you see as many films as I do, in a month, let alone a year, you start looking for something more in every film. When they don't deliver it, it leaves you wanting and you don't like it as much. I don't think this makes "Bottle Shock" less or more acceptable; every film should strive for excellence and deliver it to the audience whether they see five or six films a year or five or six films a month. But I can see why "Bottle Shock" is popular with audiences. Because it doesn't challenge the viewer very much and it is a feel good movie. If you saw this movie on TV, you probably wouldn't turn it off. In fact, TV is probably the best medium for viewing this film.
Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a Brit who owns a wine shop in Paris, is desperate to increase his business. His lone customer, and friend, Maurice (Dennis Farina) stops by every afternoon to taste what ever Steven has opened, gladly helping himself to as many samples as he can before Steven corks the bottle. But Steven is desperate for business and decides he will organize a blind tasting of French and California wines, to coincide with the Bicentennial Celebration in America. He hopes the attending publicity will generate a lot of business for his shop. He convinces the local French wine authorities to sponsor the contest and sets off to California's Napa Valley to find some wines for the competition. Meanwhile, Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) struggles at his winery trying to come up with the best Chardonnay anyone has ever tasted. Leaving his law career behind, he has been struggling to keep his winery afloat until the Chardonnay is ready. His son, Bo (Chris Pine, Kirk in the new JJ Abrams "Star Trek" film), really just wants to have a good time, but there is a little thread in him that wants to help his dad succeed in the business, so he doesn't understand why his struggling dad stubbornly refuses to release the chardonnay. But Jim wants the vintage to be so pure, so fine, people will love it. Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), Jim's assistant, is also working on a vintage of his own. As a native resident of the Napa Valley, he knows wine, grapes, and the dirt. Then, an intern Sam (Rachael Taylor, "Transformers") shows up in a beaten up VW Bug and both young men circle her like prey. When Steven shows up at the Jim's winery, Jim almost runs him off, but Bo manages to get a bottle to Steven and he likes what he tastes.
Written and directed by Randall Miller, who also wrote and directed "Marilyn Hotchkiss' School of Dance", the new film suffers from the same problems as the previous. Everything is too cute, too sitcomy and no time is ever spent trying to explore the character's true emotions, their true feelings. And if time is spent in this pursuit, it seems very artificial and unmeaningful.
Bill Pullman plays Jim Barrett, the very passionate winemaker who doesn't want to sell his first vintage of chardonnay until it is absolutely ready. From the moment Pullman appears on screen and we hear his slow, distinct drawl we get Jim Barrett. He is passionate about his wine and doesn't want anything or anyone to affect the quality of the product. But what we don't get is why he is so passionate about his wine. Without this part of the puzzle, Jim remains an unfocused, for us, throughout a significant portion of the story. Later in the film, much later, there is a scene that suddenly brings this all together, but until this point, we simply know he is passionate.
This passion causes his relationship with his son to become strained. Bo is frustrated; he wants to help his dad, but his dad only wants to do what he wants to do. He will only sell the wine when it is ready, even if he has to get another loan to keep the winery running. Then, when Jim experiences a problem, he acts impetuously and threatens the entire business.
He also doesn't like Steven and refuses to participate in the contest. The reason he doesn't want to participate? Well, part of it has to do with state and the quality of the wine. While his wine is good, Jim knows it isn't great yet. He wants it to be great. The other factor is that he doesn't like Steven or the concept of the contest. The contest inherently places French wine at the top, the pinnacle, and Jim doesn't feel his wine is less than the bottles from France. His wine doesn't have to 'catch up'. And he fails to see what the publicity might do for his business.
I will go to just about any film Alan Rickman appears in. The moment he graces the silver screen, the film becomes better. And "Bottle Shock" is no exception. Rickman is really a throwback to the golden age of film, the era when certain stars simply played themselves time and time again. Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, John Wayne all played variations on their persona in countless films and the public made sure to see every one of their films. Rickman has such a unique accent and delivery I think it would be difficult for him to truly meld into the background and become someone we don't recognize. Any time he is on screen, for more than half a second, we know Rickman is in the film. His accent is so recognizable, his delivery so trademark, it would be all but impossible for him to blend into the background. He is the perfect choice for Professor Snape in the "Harry Potter" films; in many instances, all he has to do is look askance at Harry or Ron, and they all but deflate. He is the perfect choice for the Sheriff of Nottingham in Kevin Costner's "Robin Hood". He is the perfect choice to play Hans Gruber in "Die Hard". He is also great in dramas and has helped "Truly, Madly, Deeply" and "Love, Actually" become as memorable as they are to this day. His accent, his delivery, his gaze has made more than one of the films he has appeared in better because he was in them.
In "Bottle Shock", he plays Steven Spurrier, a Brit who owns a struggling wine shop in Paris. The movie really picks up when Steven arrives in Northern California, ready to search out the wines for his contest. He has to deal with a bad rental car, eating on the road and dealing with the various eccentrics he meets. Steven battles the culture shock he is experiencing and this provides Rickman with the glances he needs to make this character come alive. Just the art of watching Rickman portray this character eating a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time is almost worth the price of admission.
As the film continues, and because we already know the outcome of the big contest, there has to be something else to hold our interest and build some sort of suspense. This element is entirely too predictable and you can see the outcome coming a mile away. It just reeks of a television sitcom and only points yet another finger at how sitcomy the entire film is. When Bo and Gustavo both fall for Sam, you know the outcome.
In "Marilyn Hotchkiss' School of Dance", Miller fills the cast with a very large, very recognizable cast of character actors. The problem is, because the cast is so large, it seems like everyone is allowed one quirk, one eccentricity, because there isn't time to develop the characters more. Or maybe because the director is unable to provide more. "Bottle Shock" suffers from the same problem. When we meet Gustavo's caretaker, Mr. Garcia (Miguel Sandoval), he has to have a quirky attribute. But he only has one. There are too many characters and Miller can't handle too many details about any of them. Eliza Dushku plays the owner of the local bar, who inherited it from her father. She likes Bo, Gustavo and Sam and plays along with their games. Yet, she doesn't seem to have any physical needs because a relationship, with anyone, never seems to be in the cards. So in the end, everyone seems just a little too cute, a little too stereotypical and much too one note.
In fact "Bottle Shock" suffers from the same problem in every regard. It is a little too cute, a little too stereotypical and much too one note.