Both ham-fisted and half-assed, this story of the early days of California winemaking (circa 1976, the year "California defeated all Gaul," as Time put it back when West Coast vino trumped France's) is unsure of whether it's a dark comedy, enological thriller, or overwrought "true-life" underdog melodrama. So instead it's a little bit of all those things and not much of anything once uncorked and left to sit. Actors Bill Pullman and Alan Rickman, stuck trying to make sense of and find their way into a screenplay bereft of character development or naturalistic dialogue, work awfully hard to wring something palatable from the rotten grapes. And the result for one of them at least is off-putting: It's hard to tell whether Pullman, as vintner Jim Barrett, is just a hard-headed sumbitch in it to win it or a crazy dude in serious need of institutionalization. The guy's just trying way too hard, like the entire movie — down to the scoring of damned near every single scene, when we're just begging for some peace and quiet.
Bottle Shock's an exercise in frustration, as it turns a history lesson into a Hoosiers in need of a stiff drink. Yes, as a matter of fact, there really is a Jim Barrett: In 1972, during a trip to Napa Valley, he stumbled across an old chateau perched upon an abandoned vineyard and began using his own plane to fly back and forth from his Southern California law firm to tend to the vines. He finally moved up north, reopened Chateau Montelena, recruited son Bo (who, says the Barretts' website, was an honors student in viticulture and enology at Fresno State) to help run the place, and, in the summer of '76, took top honors at a blind tasting in Paris where, for the first time, French wines were pitted against American offerings as the behest of a young Paris wine store owner named Steven Spurrier. As Jim Barrett told Time in June 1976: "Not bad for kids from the sticks."
But too bad that the entirety of the film, cowritten by director Randall Miller, tries to match that deadpan aw-shucks punch line, and includes a downright silly scene involving Freddy Rodriguez (as Gustavo Brambila, Chateau Montelena's put-upon helper) and Rachael Taylor (as Samantha, the winery's...um...intern?) screwing in the most obscenely art-directed shack in the history of rotting wood. For a moment, the whole thing starts tasting like stale soft-core.
Miller, whose filmography includes the Sinbad-Phil Hartman face-off Houseguest, should have kept it low-key, like Rickman, who delivers the film's sole great performance. As Spurrier — who was 34 in 1976, not in his early 60s — Rickman manages to make snooty rather affable, even charming. He heads to the States at the goading of a crass Yank (Dennis Farina, but of course) expecting to find American wines as palatable as toilet water. Only he's quietly amazed by the quality of the product, and lets on only with the slightest hint of a bemused grin. The U.S. vintners think him condescending at best, insufferable at least, but it's clear the man's in love.
With Jim, it's not so clear. Pullman never looks like he enjoys making wine — the job seems about as much fun as transcribing a deposition. Which makes sense to a point — Jim is, after all, thisclose to financial ruin. But the scowl is omnipresent, replaced by the sly grin only in the movie's waning moments, when the weight of the world upon Jim's shoulders has almost crushed the audience to death as well. Which is what's ultimately so depressing about Bottle Shock: It should be all sparkling and light with a hint of acid, but instead it's like taking a huge gulp of vinegar.