Memphis-style barbecue and wines ranging from Napa Valley to Sicily aren’t the only things at odds with each other in Netflix’s latest film “Uncorked.” Writer and director Prentice Penny (“Insecure,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), in his feature film debut, captures the struggle between father and son in a generational conflict between keeping tradition alive and pursuing individual passions.
Elijah (Mamoudou Athie) works two jobs: one at his family’s long-standing barbecue restaurant and the other at a local winery. His father Louis (Courtney B. Vance) wants Elijah to eventually take over the restaurant to keep the family business alive. There’s just one slight problem: Elijah isn’t interested in spending the rest of his life buying hickory wood and cutting up ribs. What he wants is to become a master sommelier.
The joy that exudes from Elijah’s face is apparent every time he drinks a glass of pinot grigio, a Riesling or any other wine. From the moment he tastes the drink, he’s able to decipher the region it came from and the year the grapes were plucked. It’s a passion that he knows is hard for his family, especially his father, to understand. But it’s a love nonetheless that equals the one his father has for the restaurant.
When he finally garners the courage to tell his entire family, they look perplexed. The term sommelier is foreign to them, especially to his mother Sylvia (Niecy Nash), who mistakenly says “Somalian” and “sommely” instead.
Dinner scenes between the family as well as Syliva and Louis’ banter are where the dialogue excels, playing out more like improvisation in the film’s funniest moments. But Penny’s screenplay manages to tread between balancing comedic bursts with quiet moments of family drama.
Although the film’s writing is strong, Penny does fall into the same faults that first-time directors typically make. At a 104-minute runtime, the film drags with an unnecessary amount of transition shots. Not only that, but an overabundance of song choices makes the film feel like it wants to blare whatever single is currently popular for no reason. Luckily, these are single issues that don’t hinder the plot.
Penny never devolves scenes into melodramatic sequences of excessive anger. Most of the time, conversations are restrained, with the camera lingering on people holding back what they want to say. Louis and Elijah, in particular, can’t manage to hold a conversation that lasts more than a few minutes without having to pretend like they’re semi-interested. The room turns quiet — both have something on their mind, but they stop themselves, opting to say nothing instead.
Elijah is naturally goofy and as a pickup line compares Riesling, a sweet white wine, to Drake because they’re both “in their feelings.” He’s corny but the likable type. His smile lingers on for too long, unsure of what to do or say next. But where he resembles his father most is in his inability to voice his thoughts in times of conflict. Athie and Vance’s father-son performances shine at depicting the stubbornness of men, who instead of giving in to their emotions, repress them instead.
The more time Elijah devotes to studying theory and wine tasting, the more the unspoken tension between him and his father evolve. That’s when Nash comes in as the caring mother who tells it like it is. Her performance becomes more engrossing and emotionally impactful as she sees the relationship between her husband and son falter. She, along with Elijah’s motivating girlfriend Tanya (Sasha Compere), are the beacons of rationale in “Uncorked.” They aren’t afraid to push their partners to confront their feelings head-on even when it’s uncomfortable.
Their words can only go so far, as both Louis and Elijah do what they know best and focus on barbecuing and wine tasting. What follows are scenes detailing their respective crafts. Sommeliers deciphering that the red wine they’re drinking is a 2006 Alta Vista Single Vineyard Temis or chefs cutting up and smothering ribs with homemade barbecue sauce play out like scenes from “Chef’s Table.” Cinematographer Elliot Davis shoots these scenes extremely up close, capturing the marbling of raw meat and the pouring of wine into a glass. He’s able to highlight the level of precision that it takes to succeed in these respective fields.
“Uncorked” blends comedy and drama in a film that champions people doing what they love and delving into why they love it. The true contrast in the movie isn’t just between wine and barbecue but between father and son.