The question might be moot. "Somm" is a documentary, not a dramedy like "Sideways," and in the US documentaries rarely cross over into the general market.
If you do love wine, "Somm" has all the elements of a terrific movie -- drama, humor, tension, great characters. And director Jason Wise introduces visual excitement into one of the most boring things in the world, watching other people taste, with gimmicks like wine glasses being smashed or shot to mark scene transitions.
"Somm" feels like a sports documentary; it follows the structure of a team working together to overcome an impossible opponent.
The film follows four students as they prepare to take the Master Sommelier exam, arguably the hardest exam in the world. Three of them -- Ian, Brian and Dustin -- study together, with a locker-room mentality. They're teammates, not opponents, but they're also frequently teasing, and guessing wines blind with on-the-fly tasting notes is a daring area where you leave yourself open to feeling foolish. This isn't reality TV; it's surprising that they don't bicker more often.
The first time I hear one of them describe a flavor, not an aroma, as "a freshly opened can of tennis balls," I'm reminded of the supportive environment you need to state such an impression. If I wrote that on this blog, I'd be ruthlessly mocked. MS candidates need friends, not just to show them flash cards with the names of sub-regions or approved grape varieties on the back, but to indulge them in the immersive culture of wine obsession.
|Brian, Ian and Dustin try to decide if that's fresh violet, dried violet, bruised violet ...|
Worst of all, they taste and taste and taste, but never drink. Eventually this wears on me. There are a few glamour shots of vineyards and short interviews with winemakers, but this is not a movie about the beauty of wine country or the inexpressible joy of wine appreciation. They may have gotten into wine because they like it, but that's not really apparent from this film. Instead, it's a movie about work and study and obsession, about the anxious wait for success and the crushing disappointment of failure.
These are topics that most people can relate to, so even if you can't imagine the flavor of a crucial blind-tasted wine that one thinks is Albariño when another says Sancerre, you can feel the anguish of their uncertainty. What if he's right? Would I fail? What if I'm right -- would he fail?
Brian makes the most poignant speech of the film, surprisingly late and delivered flatly and analytically, after you have spent more than an hour watching the three men suffer. He explains that the worst possible outcome is not that they all fail, or that two of them fail, because in those cases they would have each other for another try at the test a year later. The worst possible outcome would be if two of them pass, because the third man would be alone.
The flaw of the film is that we don't see much of them outside of their study. We meet their wives and girlfriends, who are amazingly supportive, and we sympathize with them more than with the men. But we don't see them much at their jobs, if they even still have jobs as the test nears. And we don't have any idea how they afford the bottles they are always opening to taste blind.
|Fred Dame as The Riddler|
There are devastating missteps along the way -- who knew that a bottle of Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay could cause so much agony? There's a ruthless, taunting opponent: Fred Dame, head of the Court of Master Sommeliers, who claims in an interview he doesn't like being mean after demonstrating how much sadistic pleasure he takes in abusing these aspirants.
I won't spoil the ending, but it's surprising and emotional; a fair payoff for spending 90 minutes locked in a study hall with these guys.
"Somm" doesn't romanticize wine, and for some stretches it even takes the joy out of it, just as preparing for the Olympics must take all the joy out of swimming. That said, the flaw of most wine documentaries is their gauzy soft focus. There's a lot of wine consumed in "Somm," but it never loses its wits.
Note to commenters: No spoilers, please.
Somm is in limited theatrical release and is already available on iTunes, or you can pre-order the DVD on Amazon.
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