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You might think that someone raised deep within a barbecue dynasty would have his nose so tuned to smoke that he wouldn’t have a palate for much beyond that. Not so in Uncorked, Prentice Penny’s story of a son (Mamoudou Athie) whose passion for fine wine carries him away from the BBQ joint his father (Courtney B. Vance) expects him to inherit some day. Offering a fictionalized version of the hard-core studying seen in Somm — Jason Wise’s 2012 doc about people seeking the highest certification in wine expertise — and couching it within a familiar family drama, the film has a solid feel for family dynamics and local color. It won’t be the most dramatic movie you see this month — but then, making the elite obsession over vintages and vineyards gripping to an ordinary moviegoer is hardly the easiest job.
Athie’s Elijah is the kind of devotee who wants to make his rarefied passion accessible to everyone: When an attractive customer (Sasha Compere’s Tanya) asks for advice in the wine shop where he works, he asks if she likes hip-hop, then describes wines as if they were rappers — chardonnay goes with anything, like Jay-Z; pinot grigio is the Kanye of grapes. His enthusiasm must be attractive: Tanya comes back soon on the pretense of joining the shop’s wine club, probably the only way she can manage to let the charmingly fumbling man get her phone number.
RELEASE DATE Mar 27, 2020
Elijah works at that shop part time, squeezing shifts in around his main job at the Memphis restaurant his father, Louis, still refers to as a “stand.” In this meathead viewer’s estimation, naming a pitmaster Louis automatically earns a film some BBQ cred, and scenes at the stand ring true; though the film (refreshingly) never resorts to food porn to engage us, it’s clear this backdrop for the story wasn’t chosen at random.
Louis involves his son in every aspect of the business, like going on trips to select wood for his fires, and for a while pretends he’s not hearing the youth’s hints about the sommelier career he aspires to. Elijah has obsessed over things before — he wanted to be a DJ, then to teach in Japan — and these passing passions give Louis an excuse to call him a dilettante. But Elijah’s respectful plea “I just wanna find my own thing” is heard loud and clear by his mother, Sylvia (Niecy Nash, in a pleasingly assertive performance). She even supports her son when, well into the wine course he’s taking, the program requires him to make a long, expensive trip to Paris to get familiar with the Old World.
That journey allows the film to literalize the way wine has opened up the young man’s world and also to focus on the kind of super-nerdery that drove Somm and similar films. With a handful of new friends like Eric (Matt McGorry), Elijah dives into a life of flash cards, maps of wine-making regions, and competitive tasting. Viewers who’ve seen some of those docs may feel cheated when they don’t get to hear anyone compare a wine’s nose to something as exotic as, say, a freshly opened can of tennis balls, or a garden hose that has been cut with a knife. But the film gets across the amount of esoteric knowledge required for those who want to be master sommeliers.
Penny, best known as showrunner for Insecure, relies increasingly on artificial-feeling plot developments as the film progresses, perhaps understanding that the desire to pass a test — and a test about what many would consider silly subject matter, at that — is not exactly the stuff of high drama. But Vance and Athie create characters worth our attention, and the script’s realistic handling of their conflict pulls Uncorked through its lulls. For those accustomed to pairing their carnivore’s lunches with Big Red, iced tea or beer, it may not be a natural fit, but maybe, with the right guidance, ribs and wine can live together in harmony.
Production company: Mandalay Pictures
Cast: Mamoudou Athie, Courtney B. Vance, Niecy Nash, Sasha Compere, Matt McGorry, Gil Ozeri, Kelly Jenrette, Bernard David Jones, Meera Rohit Kumbhani
Director-Screenwriter: Prentice Penny
Producers: Jill Ahrens, Ryan Ahrens, Jason Michael Berman, Prentice Penny, Chris Pollack, Ben Renzo, Datari Turner
Director of photography: Elliot Davis
Production designer: Kendall Bennett
Editor: Sandra Montiel
Casting directors: Christopher Gray, Jeffrey Karantza
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