Sundance Film Festival
PARK CITY -- When a film opens with the title, "Based on a true story," one wonders if the filmmakers are trying to bolster a flimsy premise with claims of authenticity.
But "Bottle Shock," which had its world premiere at Sundance, enshrines an irresistible story that happens to be (mainly) true. It takes place in 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial, and in these cynical times, it is nice to be reminded of an American victory that is actually worth celebrating. This might not have been a momentous world achievement, but it was a gratifying victory all the same.
The contest takes place in the world of wine, in a time when California wines competed for the first time in a prestigious competition in France. One of the competitors was Chateau Montelena, a vineyard owned by Jim Barrett, who dropped out of the corporate rat race to pursue his dream of cultivating grapes. Jim is just one of the engaging characters in this tale of American hayseeds taking on French connoisseurs. Because of the wine backdrop, some will compare the film to "Sideways," but the comparisons are not really fair. This is a different kind of movie, a classic underdog tale with lots of humor and heart. With the right handling, it could be a hit on the specialty circuit.
The film begins by introducing an intriguing ensemble. In the Napa Valley, Jim (Bill Pullman) is locked in constant battle with his slacker son, Bo (Chris Pine), who works for him at the vineyard. Another worker, Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), the son of a Mexican field hand, hopes to launch his own label. Both of the men are infatuated with Sam (Rachael Taylor), a new arrival in town. Meanwhile, in Paris, Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) hopes to revive his failing wine business by sponsoring a competition, and a friend encourages him to visit California to add a new gimmick to the contest.
The film is very leisurely in establishing all these characters -- a mite too leisurely. The first half would benefit from tighter editing. Another problem is that the characters -- the tyrannical father and the rebellious son, the snooty European wine connoisseur -- are a bit stock, and the personal stories are not as well developed as they might be. But the film keeps building in intensity, and the payoff sizzles.
As he showed in "Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School," director Randall Miller has real affection for actors, and he brings out the best in performers who haven't always had an opportunity to shine. (Miller wrote and produced both films with his wife, Jody Savin.) Pullman has his best role in years, and he captures the fury as well as the passion of a man in thrall to a dream on the verge of collapse. Pine has enormous charm, and Rodriguez confirms the promise he showed on HBO's "Six Feet Under." Rickman also has one of his juiciest roles in recent years, and he's able to satirize British haughtiness without falling into caricature. Watch his reactions as he samples California cuisine -- first a vat of Kentucky Fried Chicken and then a glob of guacamole -- and you'll savor the mastery of a truly subtle actor. Two beautiful young actresses -- Taylor and Eliza Dushku as a ballsy bartender -- give equally winning performances.
Once the film gets past the exposition, it brings off a number of delectable scenes. A high point comes when Rickman and Pine inveigle a bunch of airline passengers to transport California wine in their carry-on bags. And the climactic competition, where the scrappy American interloper has to stand up against generations of French tradition, is as rousing as any finale you'll see this year. Cinematographer Michael J. Ozier magnificently captures the Napa countryside. This intelligent, affectionate, beautifully acted movie gives crowd-pleasers a good name.
Unclaimed Freight Prods.
Director: Randall Miller
Screenwriters: Jody Savin, Randall Miller, Ross Schwartz
Story: Ross Schwartz, Lannette Pabon, Jody Savin, Randall Miller
Producers: Jody Savin, Randall Miller, Marc Lhormer, Brenda Lhormer, J. Todd Harris, Marc Toberoff
Executive producers: Robert Baizer, Erik Cleage, Art Klein, Dan Schryer
Director of photography: Michael J. Ozier
Production designer: Craig Stearns
Music: Mark Adler
Co-producer: Elaine Dysinger
Costume designer: Jillian Kreiner
Editors: Randall Miller, Dan O'Brien
Steven Spurrier: Alan Rickman
Jim Barrett: Bill Pullman
Bo Barrett: Chris Pine
Sam: Rachael Taylor
Gustavo: Freddy Rodriguez
Maurice: Dennis Farina
Joe: Eliza Dushku
Mr. Garcia: Miguel Sandoval
Running time -- 110 minutes
No MPAA rating