No more than 90 seconds into Uncorked and I wasn’t sure what I craved more, some nicely charred rib tips or a glass of a jammy Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The cooking and preparation of mouthwatering Memphis-style BBQ and the vine-to-vintage route of a fine wine are lustily photographed in a dazzling opening credits sequence. This new Netflix original (which was to have debuted at SXSW before the festival was closed thanks to the coronavirus pandemic) is a fairly straightforward “a man must choose his own path” story, but it’s the specifics that set it apart. And the specifics, in this case, are delicious.
Elijah (Mamoudou Athie) is heir to a family-owned soul food joint. (Yes, “barbecue spaghetti,” a very localized dish, is on the menu, so this movie is legit.) It isn’t a money-printing machine, but the business is less about fortune, it’s about community. As his father Louis (Courtney B. Vance) boasts on a trip to survey rib-smoking wood, “Frankie Beverly had a stroke there!” Louis inherited the place from his pop and he intends to pass it to his son to take over.
The problem, of course, is that Elijah really isn’t interested. The thing that fascinates, motivates, and inspires him is wine. He yearns to be a master sommelier — the guy in fancy restaurants who’ll tell you what wine from which terroir pairs with a specific meal. While many might question just how much work really goes in to such a thing, Uncorked does a terrific job of showing just how deep the oenophile obsession can go. (You might never say “I’ll take the House Red” again after this.)
Elijah’s big-hearted mother Sylvia (Niecy Nash) is supportive, even if the extended family makes jokes (not Somalian — sommelier!). As Elijah heads to wine school, we watch him and his classmates struggle to name the region, vineyard, and year of a given wine based just on a sip. As one who can sometimes confuse Coke and Pepsi, I find this to be an almost superhuman trait, but going down the rabbit hole of viniculture is fascinating, and writer-director Prentice Penny shoots these sequences in a way that even a novice can follow along.
The big fermenting conflict, naturally, is the one that’s coming between father and son. There are, however, some unexpected (and surprisingly emotional!) twists in the road. This is ultimately a lighthearted movie about following your dreams, but some of the family stuff hits quite hard.
This is mostly due to the performances. Athie is quite a strong leading man, and his courtship of a new gal (whom he first woos by calling Rieslings “the Drake of white wine”) is charming. The partnership in love and barbecue between Vance and Nash, however, is what really sells Uncorked. These characters feel extremely lived-in, and while they are apt to hurl sitcom-like dissbombs at one another, there is a palpable love and respect between them. Some of the biggest laughs here are essentially throwaways that lesser performers wouldn’t know what to do with. How a line about forgetting to DVR Power could knock me off the couch remains a mystery, but when you have a pairing like this everything tastes great.
One of the film’s detours takes Elijah to study in Paris, and though the location scenes are dazzling, some story elements get a little thin. The aforementioned romance (with a cheerful Sasha Compère) basically vanishes. Then time seems to speed up (no spoilers) and it was a little unclear just how long Elijah was gone. Something that is neither central to the drama but is not ignored is the fundamental dearth of African Americans joining Elijah in training. There is no racial tension with his colleagues, but it would be inauthentic for the film to just pretend the lack of inclusivity would go unnoticed.
Watching Uncorked during a period of coronavirus quarantine undoubtedly raised the stakes for me. I really, really wanted to run out and get some ribs. There’s a BBQ place that’s overpriced and mediocre in my neighborhood, and if it wasn’t temporarily closed I’d have bought out the whole shop. But I also reacted quite strongly to the family storyline, and it’s possible that as recently as two weeks ago I may have considered it “a little cheesy.” They say there’s a peak time in which to uncork a bottle of wine, and this is surely it.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Uncorked premieres Friday, Mar. 27 on Netflix.