Uncorked, which hits Netflix Friday, March 27th, along with last summer’s Always Be My Maybe, is part of an expanding crop of streaming movies that feel pleasantly small in scale, with stories that are grounded and slightly niche — think This American Life snapshot of contemporary urbane life meets meditative Anthony Bourdain travelogue.
Where theatrical offerings have gotten bloated, combining protagonists and universes until the initially simple good-vs-evil plots have become fractal kaleidoscopes and runtimes have inched towards three hours and beyond, these streamers have taken the exact opposite approach, whispering their themes in low-stakes stories that viewers can watch at their own pace, like cinematic ASMR. No no, go ahead, fall asleep, you can always come back to me later.
In Uncorked, Prentice Penny directs Mamoudou Athie (The Circle, Patti Cake$) as Elijah, the would-be third-generation proprietor of a Memphis barbecue joint — if only his youthful eye wasn’t wandering towards wine. Elijah moonlights at the wine shop, dreaming of Barolo-centric tasting menus and life as a master sommelier (less than 250 in the entire world!) while his father, Louis, played by Courtney B. Vance, hectors him about hickory, spice rubs, and meat purveyors. Mom (the delightful Niecy Nash) tries to referee.
Uncorked obviously isn’t the first movie ever to feature a conflict between a son who wants to find his own path and a father who expects him to put childish dreams aside and step up to run the family business (like he had to) — but it is probably the first movie about a young, black aspiring sommelier. That’s the thing about tropes, they can work wonderfully when paired with the hyper-specific.
Elijah meets a girl (Sasha Compére) who urges him to stop making excuses for not pursuing his dream and luckily Elijah, like most movie protagonists, has a nicely-specific dream (would that we could be so lucky). He works his butt off getting into somm school, along the way meeting a neurotic waiter and a blue blood (“they call me Harvard, because I went to Harvard”) who become his pals. Much swirling and spitting ensues, along with flashcards about the wine regions of Germany, France, Napa.
Aside from a few jokes about “a brother just trying to get some prosciutto” there aren’t any tearful heart to hearts about a black man struggling to infiltrate the fairly white world of wines and fine dining. Elijah’s specificity defies pat symbolism. That’s another of Uncorked strengths (Prentice Penny also wrote the script), that it doesn’t ignore the racial dimension, but it also doesn’t force Elijah and his family to be some afternoon special about the upwardly mobile black middle class. They’re sassy in a familiar way and styled aspirationally (Elijah does love his scarves), but they’re mostly allowed to be themselves, without the story trying to point at them and scream “this is us!” (With all due respect to This Is Us).
Elijah sniffs corks, his father slings pork, and when the whole family gets together the one-liners flow, zinging around the table from dopey cousin to kooky aunt. “I want to be a master sommelier” “You tryna be an African?” “Is that like a pirate?” “No, that’s a Somalian.” “Kelly Kendrick dated a Somalian. He stole her identity.”
The humor is stylized but sharply-structured, slightly shticky but well-timed and mostly gentle in tone. There’s an almost British quality to it, albeit anchored by traditionally African-American characters and content. Mostly it’s just well delivered. It’s rare in the age of atomized pop-culture to find jokes that both you and your grandma will probably laugh at, but Uncorked has quite a few (assuming your grandma can find it, who knows what the old broad’s got on her algorithm).
Uncorked is an easy, pleasant watch, even if its ultimate message of following your dreams leaves us with a slightly milquetoast finish. It’s more about vicarious cork sniffing than insight into the human condition anyway, a home-grown, Memphis take on The Trip.
Prentice Penny and Netflix probably didn’t realize when they were making Uncorked that it would be such a nostalgia piece, about the joys of going to, and opening, bars and restaurants. It’s a nice escape during a mass quarantine, and hopefully it will one day just be the pleasant slice of life it was intended to be.