The new Netflix drama “Uncorked” tells the age-old story of a demanding father and a dutiful son. The father has plans for his son, but the son has dreams of his own. It’s a tried-and-true formula and well-plowed movie ground. Yet despite its familiar premise, “Uncorked” has its own welcomed flavor and is pleasant enough going down. And with that I promise no more wine-inspired puns.
Writer-director Prentice Penny caught the wine bug while attending a wedding in Paris. He quickly began soaking up books and documentaries as well as taking a wine studies class. All of this helped inspire “Uncorked” which sees a young man named Elijah (Mamoudou Athie) sporting a passionate interest in wine. The problem is his father Louis (Courtney B. Vance) runs a BBQ restaurant that was handed down to him from his father. “This place is historic,” Louis says. “Frankie Beverly had a stroke here.”
Obviously Louis’ plan is for Elijah to one day take over the place. But he grows frustrated at his son’s lack of interest which (predictably) drives a wedge between them. As is often the case, it’s the mother who plays referee/voice of reason. Here she’s played by a fun but affecting Niecy Nash. While we have seen this whole family dynamic in numerous other films, Penny and his cast inject a strong dose of personality and authenticity while showcasing a welcomed perspective on the black experience not often represented in cinema.
Athie’s subdued performance hits it mark in giving us a conflicted twenty-something who feels an obligation to his family while dreaming of becoming a master sommelier (for the unlearned like me, a sommelier is a trained wine professional who specializes in wine services for fine restaurants). He finds encouragement in his new girlfriend Tanya (a terrific Sasha Compère) and his mother backs his enthusiasm. But it all comes back to his father who only thinks of the restaurant and his expectations for his son.
The central conflict plays out as you might expect, but it’s getting there that makes “Uncorked” feel fresh. First off, Penny nimbly walks a fine line and keeps Louis from being an all-out villain. You’ll want to pull his hair out at times, ￼but Penny gives the character several dimensions and imbues him with enough human complexity to avoid caricature. In fact I can see Louis striking a chord with many people who will see shades of their own fathers.
I also like the scenes with the rest of Elijah’s family, many of whom are endowed with their own special eccentricities.￼ Penny gives them all a role in Elijah’s story whether it’s back-and-forths at the BBQ joint or the comical dinner table rapport when they all gather to eat. All of these side players breathe a lot of life into the story. So does the Memphis setting which moves in the background like a silent supporting character. The hip hop interludes aren’t quite as effective although I appreciate what Penny is going for.
As Elijah decides to pursue his dream the movie shifts to Paris but home is always somewhere in the scene. And while Penny allows us to dip our toes into wine culture, he doesn’t bypass Deep South urban living and all of it’s moving intimacies and bitter realities. And despite being built on an all-too-familiar framework, there is enough fresh meat on its bones to make “Uncorked” as enjoyable as a plate of Louis’ scrumptious ribs. Okay, maybe not that good but you get what I’m saying.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS