Promoting a film as “this year’s Sideways” is the quickest way to increase my trepidation. Sideways (2004) is part of that select list of movies—along with Little Children (2006), Lost in Translation (2003) and In the Bedroom (2001)—that everyone goes nuts over, but leave me cold. I watch them. I can even sometimes admire them, but at bottom, I don’t like them at all. I was almost relieved to see that Bottle Shock was not being fawned over by the critical populace. In fact, its reviews have been on the slightly bad side of evenly split. Having seen the film, it’s easy to understand why.
Aside from being a classic example of taking a fairly simple story and bitching it up by grafting on at least two, if not three, unnecessary, unpersuasive and largely inconclusive subplots, Bottle Shock raises the question of whether or not a pretty good movie can be killed by a really bad wig. In this instance, I’m going to say it can at least come darn close. The matted mass of 1970s hair (or what director Randall Miller imagines 1970s hair to be) sitting atop Chris Pine’s head like a spectacularly bedraggled puli is the most bogus-looking mop since Eric Roberts and Cheech hid out in the jungle in 1989’s Rude Awakening. (If this is somehow really Pine’s hair, then for the love of Vidal Sassoon, get the man to a sheep shearer.) Is this too much fuss over a wig? I don’t think so, because it’s more than distracting here, it makes it even harder to like Pine’s already hard-to-like character. And liking that character is essential to the film.
Getting past the tonsorial issue, what we have here is a film with a beguiling central story—based on true events—that is built around a charming and surprisingly deep lead performance from Alan Rickman as a semi-stuffy Brit who opts to promote his less-than-successful Parisian wine shop by staging a blind wine tasting where French and California wines go head to head. (There’s no big drama. We know the Yanks come out on top from the onset.) Great, but the movie keeps going off on tangents it’s hard to care much about. Not surprisingly, these tangents are generally embellishments. In real life, for example, father-son winemakers Jim (Bill Pullman) and Bo Barrett (Chris Pine) bonded by going fishing. In the movie, they bond—and let off the steam of their uneasy relationship—by punching the crap out of each other in a homemade boxing ring. Uh huh.
Let’s toss in Freddy Rodríguez (Planet Terror) as the real-life Gustavo Brambila. The subplot about him wanting to make his own wine is authentic enough, but it goes nowhere in the course of the movie. If that’s not enough, we can add a dumb triangular romance involving Bo, Gustavo and hippie girl “intern” Sam (Rachael Taylor, Transformers). This also goes nowhere, since the tone makes it clear that she has to end up with Bo.
There’s also a surfeit of surface. A handful of sun-dappled shots of the scenic beauties of the vineyards of Napa Valley are fine. A couple dozen and you’re inching toward travelogue territory. The same is true of the preposterously artsy shack Sam lives in. It’s bereft of plumbing, electricity and even windows, but hey, it’s picturesque as all get-out. In fact, it looks perfect for a skin magazine layout on “natural girls,” which, thanks to the PG-13 rating, we are here missing.
The performances are not terribly good either. It’s not entirely Pine’s fault—the script is largely responsible—that Bo is hard to like, but a more inherently sympathetic actor could have brought something to the role. Rodríguez fares a little better, but the overstuffed movie keeps losing sight of him. Taylor is mostly decorative or used as a plot device. Pullman’s turn as the elder Barrett is just downright strange. He alternates in between mulish recalcitrance and looking like he might accidentally smile to such a degree that I wondered if he was playing Barrett as mildly demented.
However, there’s also Alan Rickman as Steven Spurrier—and when he’s on-screen, all is right with this movie and the world. His amusingly sardonic take on everything—though invariably appealing—is something Rickman could do in his sleep. But there’s more. He isn’t merely a figure of fun driving about California in a rented AMC Gremlin and being subjected to Kentucky Fried Chicken (did they even have the KFC Extra Crispy recipe in 1976 when the infamous wine tasting took place?). He’s an enthusiast and a man whose world-weary demeanor is a veneer to cover a desire for surprises he thinks aren’t likely to come. It’s truly a remarkable performance—and one that makes the movie worth a look. But you might want to look fast. There were 11 people other than myself in the audience on Friday night. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexual content and a scene of drug use.