When a friend of mine opened “The Barrel Room” in San Francisco I asked her, “What’s the background on the name? Big barrel fan?” She just shrugged, sighed, and said, “There’s really no point trying to come up with an original name for a wine bar now.” and so they went with the path of least resistance calling it something wine-y and moving on to focus on the more important question: what’s inside the bar?
It seems that there was a similar issue when it came time to name this new film, “Uncorked” now available on Netflix. Searching on IMDb, there are at least five different films/shows with this title including the rather stilted and overly-scripted TV series about four aspiring Master Sommeliers that’s strictly only for dedicated wine people viewing.
This latest entry to the field by director, Prentice Penny is definitely the best of anything to be released with the name, “Uncorked” as it holds overall solid casting, great acting, a decent script, a tight hip hop soundtrack, and finally, lead characters in a wine film that aren’t white bros (aka The Somm Series.) Despite all of this, the film overall falls rather flat and while possibly of interest to wine people, it’s not going to be “the next Sideways” in terms of referential films with a wine theme.
First things first, lets all be thankful to see a film that’s a) about wine (there aren’t many) b) has a lead that’s a person of color (also, not many) and c) is overall a fully believable story line. What I mean by that last point is that the characters seem real and the situations seem real. I bought in to the family drama being presented here of a father wanting his kid to take over the family restaurant.
This isn’t anything like “Wine Country” where it seemed like a group of total strangers were tossed into a room and we were supposed to buy that they were all besties forever. No, in Uncorked, what works well is that there’s a core family drama to the film with characters that just happen to be African Americans. It feels ridiculous that in the second decade of the 21st century it’s necessary to point out how important this is, but sadly, here we are.
The core cast of Mamoudou Athie, Courtney B. Vance, and Niecy Nash (who I’ve loved ever since “Reno 911!”) gel really well together and the tense relationship between father and son is overall well articulated until about 2/3 of the way through when things change, but it’s kind of hard to really buy the change. While these three were all solid in their roles and performances, the bigger issue is that outside the core family, the other characters and actors just seem a bit tossed on to the heap. For instance, I felt no chemistry between Elijah and Tanya after their first meeting and buying that that they were a couple just never worked. Tanya just seemed to exist to ask Elijah questions that furthered the plot. This is probably what lead to a good deal of not really caring about these other characters as the air really went out of the room when it wasn’t just mom, dad, and son in the frame.
Cast aside, another bright aspect to the film is the soundtrack. The amount of times anything wine related on film or TV has an orchestral score to it (especially if set in France) to make it seem “fancy” or then jazz to make it seem “modern fancy” (?!!) are too many to count. It’s almost like you could be watching the next Avengers film, they stumble into a wine shop to pick up a bottle for dinner after the villain is killed and then suddenly Mozart is all up in your shit.
I fully admit to liking Mozart a good deal, but why does wine always need to be attached to classical music? I call bollocks on this and thankfully the producers of this film did as well with strings and timpani being replaced with thumping bass, rap, and a mix of genres. When the film jumps over to being in Paris, things then change up to being French rap–not Piano Concerto No 21. Sure, it may seem a bit of a stereotype to have a hip hop score when your main character is black, but at the same time, I welcome the crap out of anything that changes up the very staid aspects of wine.
In mentioning the Paris bit it brings us to one of several large issues of the film. Why do the characters go to Paris to study wine service? Paris is not known for being a center of learning in this regard and it’s not near any wine regions, so it’s not like there are any vineyards to visit and learn more about wine in person. They should have gone to New York or San Francisco if staying in the US or then London or Hong Kong if wanting an excuse to shoot outside the country. The Paris segment is really where I started to lose interest in the film and never got it back.
There is however one really huge issue with the film that I left until the end here to mention and it’s the whole concept of the “Master Sommelier”. For anyone who knows about the Court of Master Sommeliers, you’ll be thinking, “What the fuck is this?” as it’s a fictionalized version of the court. It is in fact so odd that I don’t know why they didn’t just make up some completely other name. Sure, I realize they wanted to reference the over-deified Court of Master Sommeliers for some street cred, but it just doesn’t work.
For starters, there seems to be the premise that gaining the Master Sommelier title, starting more or less from zero, takes one year. Even the whizziest of whiz kids take at least three and that’s a rarity, not the norm, plus they’re never starting from zero. The format is strange as it pulls in some components of the CMS but then not others. And it’s clear that when writing the script, people who know the CMS were consulted as the touch of having Elijah stare at the wines to do a visual check before tasting in one of those things only people who have bashed their head against this exam know about.
What’s really weird is that when blind tasting wines, they name a producer as well. We don’t do this. Ever. Why? Because there are literally thousands of producers and just even getting the variety, region, and vintage correct is hard enough. I still can’t over how weird that was to watch.
Taking all these bits into account, here’s a high level of “huh?” that just makes it unclear what’s going on with the exam. It’s as if the producers thought, “Let’s create our own exam, but not really bother to create the methodology around it.” It’s this, combined with a loose, superfluous supporting cast, and unbelievable jumps in the plot that ultimately take down what was an otherwise promising film.
Overall, if you like wine and want to see a different side to this world, the film is worth a watch and is maybe more enjoyable if you’re not someone involved in the wine world. If hoping that it lives up to its solid trailer, you’ll probably be a bit let down, sadly.
Also worth adding that the Guardian review sums it up excellently and Netflix in general:
“Uncorked is indicative of the sort of film that Netflix now overflows with: adequate, mid-tempo product that’s hard to hate but even harder to love, a background watch that only sometimes threatens to break through to the foreground.”