Uncorked: Family Dynamics Outshine the Wine
The basic structure underlying Netflix’s Uncorked is nothing novel: a young man, torn between his sense of familial obligation and the desire to follow his dreams, struggles to overcome the challenges placed in his way by society, culture, and his relationships as he works his way towards his ultimate goal (and learns a few lessons along the way). In this particular instance, the young man in question is Elijah (Mamoudou Athie), working for his father Louis (Courtney B. Vance) in the Memphis barbeque restaurant that Louis took over from his father. Louis is grooming Elijah to run the family business, but Elijah (who works a second job in a local wine shop) dreams of one day becoming a master sommelier. As he begins to take steps to making that idea a reality, tensions (unsurprisingly) rise between him and his father and he’ll have to decide how far down this road he’s really willing to go. Though Uncorked’s world of wine education and sommelier accreditation is well-researched, it’s also the least interesting aspect of the film. There’s a perfunctory feel to the way Elijah progresses through his training and testing, to the point where we never fully buy his (or the movie’s) commitment to the wine world as one born of real passion. Add to the mix the thinly sketched and distractingly caricatured characters that make up Elijah’s classmates and it’s hard to shake the sense that sommelier training could have been replaced with any other professional graduate program — law school, business school, you name it — without missing a beat. If Elijah’s education was merely used for background color, it would be easier to overlook, but when a film devotes as much time and energy to a subject as Uncorked does to wine, it’s hard not to wish the emotional impact was more felt. Fortunately, the other half of the film is far more successful. Writer-director Prentice Penny is a veteran of a variety of sitcoms — including Scrubs, Happy Endings, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine — known for their adeptness at blending joke-a-minute comedy with earned emotional intimacy, and it shows in the family dynamics on display in Uncorked. The scenes involving Elijah’s family are where the film truly comes alive, with crackling dialogue, believable, fleshed-out characters, and real emotion and empathy — where the aspiring sommeliers fall flat, the humor and pathos brought to the screen by actors like Vance and Niecy Nash (as Elijah’s mother) help elevate the movie’s conflict beyond the screenwriting tropes to a place of genuine authenticity. Despite the generic nature of some of the more surface level plot mechanics, the honesty and depth of feeling apparent in Penny’s exploration of familial relationships help make Uncorked greater than the sum of its parts.