The Judgment of Paris was a 1976 tasting competition that pitted the finest French wines against the latest and greatest from California. It was an event assembled to reinforce the might of the European palate, but what actually occurred during this historic tasting shook the wine industry to its core, and forever changed the reputation of American vintners.
Fearing his wine snobbery is holding him back from wondrous taste sensations, Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) decides to travel to California, to sample the local wine offerings. Once there, Spurrier's mind is blown by the quality of the product, making the vintners (including Bill Pullman, Rachael Taylor, Freddy Rodriguez, and Chris Pine somewhere underneath Hollywood's worst wig effort to date) anxious about Spurrier's ultimate motive with their grapes. With the Judgment of Paris approaching, the Americans are rattled, unable to compute how this tasting will impact their livelihood, which, for some, is slowly being pulled apart by crushing debt.
"Bottle Shock" is a terrific concept for a motion picture, and co-writer/director Randall Miller ("Houseguest," "The Sixth Man") should send the beloved wine snob film "Sideways" a thank you card, for without that picture's box office triumph, a movie like "Shock" would've never made it out of the idea stage.
What confounds me about "Shock" is how much Miller doesn't trust the inherent suspense and uneasiness of Spurrier's presence in California. Played with ace timing by the perfectly-cast Rickman, Spurrier is a snob searching for a surprise; a man called to California to reach beyond the confining space of wine appreciation seemingly against his will, discovering liquid delights from the place he least expected it. It's a contrast of stuffy Euro ice in the heat of dreamy California wine country (believe me, Miller abuses the privilege of helicopter flyover photography) that infuses inventive moments of discomfort and comedy into the story, ideally selling the ludicrous nature of the Judgment tasting.
So why exactly does Miller want to stifle Spurrier's presence during the film?
It's a question worth asking, since so much of "Shock" is devoted to stories of personal betrayal, liberal sexual activity, and intolerable melodrama more suited for a Danielle Steel novel than a film ostensibly about the beauty of wine. This is an appalling display of screenwriting 101 techniques, with Miller packing the film with lackluster, formulaic relationships to allow the film safe passage to the widest possible audience. After you've seen Rickman slink around the screen opening the picture wide open with his sly work, do the combustible father-son relationships, unsettling mating practices of a lousy intern (the loathsome Rachel Taylor), and humiliating aftershocks of illegal California labor really matter?
Miller drives "Shock" right off course, clinging to the notion that domestic clichés are more fascinating than the unholy power of the bottle. It's a dreadful directorial effort, robbing the film of personality, wit, and enthusiasm just to run through endless scenes of uninspired conflict and predetermined resolution. "Shock" can be an absolute bore when it ignores wine.
Once the contest is reintroduced into the film, life start to seep back into "Shock," along with the sweet taste of suspense. It comes a little too late into the proceedings to salvage the whole enterprise, but the final act pays off the film adequately. I wouldn't suggest it makes the journey worthwhile, but it's sufficiently dilutes the dramatic poison the rest of this picture is pushing.
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