At the Judgment of Paris in 1976, California winemakers scored a stunning victory over their French counterparts in a blind taste test. It's a tale of kismet that seems made for the big screen, so it's surprising that 30-some years have passed without a celluloid celebration. Bottle Shock, though charming, gives the feeling that its creators tried a bit too hard to cram the story into the movie mold.
Struggling to get a foothold in uppity Paris, British purveyor of wine Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) heads to the States as part of a publicity stunt. Traveling Napa Valley, Spurrier crosses paths with Chateau Montelena vintner Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), among others. Barrett finds Spurrier's plan patronizing and refuses to enter the contest, to the chagrin of his free-spirit son, Bo (Chris Pine), who disregards his father's stance — adding insult to injury when Barrett discovers his entire vintage, which should have been the perfect Chardonnay, appears to be ruined. Of course, the ending surprises everyone but the audience.
As the fuddy wine seller, Rickman is a delight: With facial expressions that might seem overdone on another actor, he displays Spurrier's astonishment as the character's hubris about life's finer things subtly morphs into genuine enjoyment and appreciation of them. In Barrett, a lawyer who left the rat race to pursue his grape-stomping dreams, Pullman has a passionate character that affords him the chance to chew the scenery — a rare and welcome occurrence. It's difficult to reconcile the button-down lawyer with the rough-and-tumble winemaker, but Pullman pulls it off flawlessly. He and Pine create a believably turbulent relationship as a father and son with more in common than they think: Each is desperate in his own way to not be written off as a failure. The charismatic Pine fully maps Bo's coming-of-age crisis, with the confusion and tentativeness that accompany the desire to be your own person and make your mark on the world.
Freddy Rodriguez as Gustavo, a Montelena employee with vine designs of his own, is affable and plays his part nicely; though the role peters out, he doesn't. Dennis Farina turns in a humorous performance as an American expatriate in Paris and thus a de facto compatriot to Spurrier. Eliza Dushku comes on way too strong as a fiery, swaggering bar owner, but Rachael Taylor as intrepid vineyard intern Sam is fresh-faced and capable. It's not her fault Sam's romances with Gustavo and Bo seem forced, more plot device than organic development.
Here's where the writers (Jody Savin, Randall Miller, and Ross Schwartz) took a wrong turn: A love affair is afoot in this tale, but it's not between a man and a woman. The cinematography unveils the romance between the men and the earth lovingly and clearly, but director Miller forgot to edit out the extraneous stuff. Nonetheless, from the opening notes (appropriately tinged with clinking glasses, courtesy composer Mark Adler) rolling over sweeping vistas of neatly combed hills, viewers will feel they are in for a treat. It's a medium-bodied vintage, muddy but sweet.
Genre: Drama/Comedy. Written by: Jody Savin, Randall Miller, and Ross Schwartz. Directed by: Randall Miller.
Starring: Chris Pine, Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman, Freddy Rodriguez, Rachael Taylor.