Starring Bill Pullman, Alan Rickman,
Chris Pine, Freddy Rodriguez, and Rachael Taylor, and co-written and directed by Randall Miller ( ), the character-driven seriocomedy Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School Bottle Shock impresses with its innate intelligence and fine execution. It's a beautifully wrought and marvelously entertaining picture. Upon release, the film drew some critical complaints insisting that it merely represented a reworking of Alexander Payne's Sideways. The two movies share a common backdrop of viticulture, but the similarities begin and end there. In fact, a comparison of Sideways and Bottle Shock proves the old film-school adage that the originality of a feature lies rooted in its characters; it makes one realize that an intelligent screenwriter and director could author 50 different features set in a vineyard and render each one unique and original simply by reslating and redrawing the ensemble. 's thematic focus differs radically from Bottle Shock , as well; Miller and his collaborators zero in on the working-class folks who staffed the Chateau Montelena vineyards in the Napa Valley during the 1970s, and recreate the events surrounding their legendary contest-driven defeat of the French that opened up the proverbial floodgates to California wine for decades to come. This account, of course, represents a first for a mainstream Hollywood film; though Miller enlists an underdog angle familiar to Hollywood product, he achieves originality by laudably recoloring and reshaping those conventions. On the level of docudrama, Miller's film scores a bull's-eye; he has history in his corner by honing in on a fascinating tale that sings with the offbeat by default, much as the adaptation of the colorful Nike tome that was floating around Hollywood in the late '90s promised to do if ever realized. That alone would seem to poise the film for some degree of success, but more impressive is the extent to which Miller draws out the historical characters and imbues them with life, color, humor, and audience interest. Miller may not quite enter Coen Brothers territory here, but he shares their love of offbeat characterization by plunging the audience into a most entertaining ensemble. On that note, some of the film's greatest strengths lie in its enlistment of Rickman as Steven Spurrier, a snotty and elitist British wine merchant who sets the tale in motion. At the outset of the story, his Parisian wine proprietorship is flailing; encouraged by a neighboring merchant (Dennis Farina) to diversify, he launches a well-publicized taste-testing contest that will gauge Californian wines on the basis of their increased presence in the market, then flies out to visit Montelena and neighboring establishments to sample their vintages. All told, this represents some of the best work Rickman has ever done; he's both subtle and wickedly funny, and imbues the picture with the off-center comic relief it needs. In his best moment, he responds to another character's inherent dislike with, "Of course, you think I'm an *sshole. Very well. But then again, I'm British, and you're not." It's the line we've been waiting for him to deliver for an hour, and he finally hits the nail on the head. Pullman impresses equally, though he sounds different notes. As Montelena proprietor Jim Barrett, a self-declared upstart who broke away from the boardroom to stake out life as a Northern California entrepreneur (but lies out of touch with the extent of his own instincts and abilities -- therein lies the twist and the depth), the actor lets a torrent of conflicting emotions come bubbling to the surface. He has two scenes here -- an emotional breakdown and a drunken release on the floor of his winery -- that elevate this once-mediocre actor (the star of such dull fare as Sideways ) to a whole new plane and could easily win him a wealth of critical respect. Age has refined Pullman, divesting him of the geeky awkwardness that once seemed to cripple him, and giving him a dignity and nobility that he long seemed to lack -- the sort of dignity and earnestness that came naturally to actors like Casper Glenn Ford. The core of the drama involves Barrett's emotional disconnect from his long-haired hippie son, Bo (Chris Pine), whom he perceives as a ne'er-do-well, little realizing the extent of the young man's inner magnanimity or bravado. Miller's skill lies not merely in his ability to shape the historical events into an entertaining docudrama, as noted, but in his unusually deft ability to juggle that element with the said human drama and comedic elements imparted by Rickman and Farina. And that's one impressive feat. The picture does fall short of perfection. Let it be noted that Jim and Bo Barrett and Steven Spurrier only represent three of six key characters in the narrative, and the other three feel somewhat underdeveloped. Miller probably felt concerned about helming an indie picture in excess of two hours, but this modest film could easily have reached the level of a masterwork if he had extended the narrative by 30 or 40 minutes, enabling him to explore the lives and substories of intern Samantha Fulton (Taylor), Hispanic vineyard worker Gustavo Brambilia (Rodriguez), and vintner Mr. Garcia ( Miguel Sandoval) more thoroughly and deeply. (It would have made a superb miniseries.) In light of what the film does offer, that can be forgiven. All told, it may not qualify as the best film of 2008, but it's a vastly enjoyable movie just the same.
All Movie Guide - Nathan Southern