It's not easy to make California's idyllic Napa Valley look dreary and impersonal on film, but "Bottle Shock" has managed just that. Directed with minimal energy and foresight by Randall Miller, this indie slice-of-life is drab and underlit to the point of monotony, with deep shadows more often than not draping over the characters' faces even when they're standing outside in plain sight of the sun. Were it not for the endless helicopter shots that sweep over vineyards and country roads, production values would be unanimously poor and the visual scope would be downright claustrophobic. Surely, movies can look unappetizing and gritty and still be successful through the writing and stories they tell, but "Bottle Shock" is about romance and wine, not crack addicts and sex fiends. Beauty is demanded here, and it never shows up.
"Bottle Shock" is a fictionalized account of the real-life 1976 Judgment of Paris, a blind wine-tasting event in which, for the first time, California beat France. The film ultimately leads up to this achievement, notable for helping to popularize the Wine Country into the tourist boom it is today. Before this occurs, there's the matter of introducing actual characters and giving the actors little to do but wait patiently for direction. In need of a gimmick to enliven his flagging business in Paris, English wine expert Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) travels to California to investigate the country's winemaking process. It is here, in the heart of Napa Valley, that struggling vintner Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) runs the Chateau Montelena vineyard. He is at constant odds with wayward grown son Bo (Chris Pine), who works alongside his father and instantly has his attention drawn to fetching new intern Sam (Rachael Taylor). Meanwhile, another worker, Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), aims to start his own label but is met with a series of roadblocks.
"Bottle Shock" is light on plot, which would be fine if the characters were well-formed and given interesting things to say. They aren't, and they do not, courtesy of an aimless screenplay by Jody Savin, Randall Miller and Ross Schwartz that has trouble bringing life to the characters' stock situations and conflicts. The film starts off at a pace slower than the average snail and never finds a meaningful connection between the people onscreen, all of whom are one-dimensional ciphers. While Steven is quarantined off from the rest of the ensemble, seemingly acting in his own mediocre one-man show, the picture spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on the romance between Bo and Sam. These two attractive young people have nothing of note to say to each other in between long, lingering glances, and the only reason they get together is because the script demands it. A love triangle is set up early on when Sam sleeps with Gustavo, but this subplot is promptly dropped no sooner than it is brought up and goes nowhere. As for the father-son relationship on display, Jim and Bo might as well be performing on different planets. The viewer never senses that these two characters have any kind of history with each other.
Performances are largely uninspired, though it's not entirely the actors' faults. They often appear to be filming scenes that have not been adequately rehearsed and blocked, and sometimes even seem to be at a loss for what to say next. As Bo Barrett, Chris Pine's (2006's "Smokin' Aces
") only impressive attributes are his biceps. As father Jim, Bill Pullman (2006's "Scary Movie 4
") is bland and forgettable. Alan Rickman (2007's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
") feels out of place as Steven Spurrier, unnaturally meshing with the rest of the cast, while Freddy Rodriguez (2007's "Grindhouse
") struggles to develop Gustavo with no help from the written page. That leaves the two female participants to come off best. Rachael Taylor (2008's "Shutter
") exhibits a carefree sweetness as new gal in town Sam, and Eliza Dushku (2003's "Wrong Turn
") does a lot with a little in the undernourished part of bartender Joe.
For a motion picture where the characters are supposed to be in love with wine, viewing the process of concocting it as an art form, the best advice would be to see 2004's lovely "Sideways
" instead. In that film, the viewer really got a sense of humanity and passion inextricably entangled with the beatific locations of California's Wine Country. In "Bottle Shock," time in this case, the 1970s and place Napa Valley are unsatisfyingly depicted in a whirlwind of spare parts that fail to come together as a whole. Save for a soaring concluding scene set to the classic Doobie Brothers song "Listen to the Music," "Bottle Shock" is a curiously languid, emotionally detached experience.