For good and for bad, Bottle Shock takes its style as well as its substance from the '70s. It gets some mileage from its Doobie Brothers soundtrack and sprawling, Robert Altman-esque approach to storytelling, just as it loses ground with its rust-colored fashions, formlessness, and blithely exploitative sexism. Trouble is, it's too rambling and digressive to feel focused, yet too calculating to feel as observational and natural as a good Altman flick.
The story centers on the 1976 "judgment of Paris," when a British wine-shop owner operating in France (played with impeccably dry snobbery by Alan Rickman) organized a blind taste-test pitting French wines against California up-and-comers. Director and co-writer Randall Miller builds up to the event in fits and distracted spurts; as with his previous film, Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School, he packs in the characters and side plots, to distracting, diluting effect. Bill Pullman plays a successful lawyer turned failing vintner; if he defaults on his latest loan, he'll lose his vineyard. Chris Pine (Kirk in J.J. Abrams' upcoming Star Trek film) is his son, a crude surfer-boy out to prove his worth. Meanwhile, proud, poor local wine savant Freddy Rodríguez works for Pullman while secretly creating his own vintage. And while Pine and Rodríguez are best friends, they wind up competing for the favors of Pullman's sexy intern, Rachael Taylor.
Miller clearly saw some appeal in the real-life story's strong personalities and snobs-vs.-slobs dynamic—through his lenses, virtually everyone in Napa is a gap-toothed, overall-wearin' country hick made good, and he repeatedly returns to the contradictions of Pullman and Pine's refined oenophilia and their ruthlessly competitive father-son boxing matches. But he's distracted by such details, and few of his digressions are particularly interesting, let alone relevant. He loves stereotypes and stereotype-busters, but can't reconcile the two—thus, Pine is dubious and dumb, except when he isn't, whereas Taylor is intelligent and driven, yet mostly around to serve as a sexual prize for everyone who behaves admirably.
Bottle Shock has picked up some extra attention because Miller is distributing it himself, having failed to secure a studio release. Which is no great surprise. In spite of the name casting, and attempts to link the film to the surprise success Sideways (similar only in that it features a wine snob in California wine country), Bottle Shock is irritating in its failures and clumsy in its successes—at least the ones not involving Rickman. He enlivens the film whenever he appears, but one solid top note does not a full-bodied vintage make.