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Review: The Pointless Battle of the Somm

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Epic tales of man destroying himself in feats of noble but meaningless labor have fascinated mankind since the days of Sisyphus. As Camus would have it, that's because we're all Sisyphus. Each one of us is our own Sisyphus, but our incline is the long sloped course of our life and our boulder is meaning.

Film has not been spared this fascination. The material has varied. It was ballet in the engaging documentary First Position, where stressed-out bendy kids compete for a spot in a ballet company. It was puff pastry as in D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' stellar 2009 documentary Kings of Pastry, where middle aged French men compete for a very fancy collar and prestigious title.

It's easy to see why filmmakers love a good expert exam flick. The narrative arc — identical, incidentally, in topography to Sisyphus' incline — is baked in: a long grueling ramp up of preparation, an all-in challenge wherein the hero's mettle is tested, and then a quick conclusion when the result is known, good or bad, triumphant or sober, Sands of Iwo Jima or Gallipoli.

The latest entry into this genre is the documentary Somm, which follows four men in their quest to earn the designation of Master Sommelier — a distinction held by only 201 very serious people — after a grueling three-part multi-day test.

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First of all, Somm is a beautiful movie. Written and directed by Jason Wise, Somm seems to have been made with an unlimited budget. There are an obscene amount of slick soundstage recreations, endless close-up slo-mo sequences of wine being poured into glasses, an equal number of wineglasses blown up in interludes straight out of the Modernist Cuisine playbook, beautiful map animations, and long stretches of time lapse photography in exotic locations.

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A trip to France, for example, for a lingering close up of the Romanée-Conti sign. It's like the Jason Bourne movies of wine geek documentaries. That the film didn't have a blockbuster budget is a testament to Mr. Wise's skill at making cheap shots look expensive. So it looks real good, visually.

How you feel about the rest of it is largely based on whether you are interested watching men spit off rapid fire adjectives about wines you can't taste for 2 hours and 23 minutes. That's not all there is in the movie but it's most of it and your reaction to endless sequences of it is a pretty good bellwether. If you think that's boring and pointless and absurd, skip Somm. Watch Homeland. If you think someone comparing a white wine to a "freshly cut garden hose" is good cinema, watch Somm. Then watch Homeland. [I just watched Homeland and think everyone should too, obviously.]

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Not all of the fault of why this movie is boring and infuriating rests solely on Mr. Wise. His heroes, at least as we find them, are kinda blah to begin with. There's Brian McClintic, a bro from San Francisco who likes Pearl Jam; Ian Cauble, a very anxious, very obsessive, somewhat intolerable overachiever, also from San Francisco; DLynn Proctor, a dapper man who lived in Dallas (now Napa); and Dustin Wilson who looks like a benign handsomer Voldemort and lived, at the time of the filming, with Mr. McClintic in San Francisco but is now the sommelier at Eleven Madison Park in New York City.

The most interesting of the bunch is either Mr. Cauble, because watching obsessive damaged human beings is always a gas, or Mr. McClintic, because he seems like a complete douche but about halfway through, one realizes, he's actually a really great guy, by far the most perceptive and eloquent among the four. As for DLynn Proctor, whose most marked quality is an unswerving belief in his own suavity, and Dustin Wilson, both of those guys seem really well-adjusted. So, you know, they're boring as shit.

But much of what is wrong with Somm is Jason Wise's fault. The reason Kings of Pastry and First Position succeed is because in both, the directors realized the surface of the competition — the details of the labor itself — are simply a means to tell the deeper more resonant stories of their heroes. This isn't to say accurately portraying the competition isn't important, on the contrary, it is through these very strange details that one reaches the more profound levels.

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The weakness of Mr. Wise's film is that he just mucks about in the shallow end of the pool, dwelling in the details. For instance, there's an extended scene where in DLynn must rush to his doctor because his left nostril is clogged. [His doctor told him to use a Netti Pot.] We see Ian running on a treadmill, studying his notecards. We get exchanges like this:

Brian: Wine three
Ian: Wine three I called Alvarinho.
Brian: Really?
Ian: What did you call it?
Brian: Sancerre.
Ian: Dude, wine three was super peachy and bitter as fuck.

Those six lines are pretty indicative of the tenor of the entire movie. They do little to convey any deeper understanding of the characters. If you don't find it fascinating that, dude, of course, Alvarinho is bitter as fuck, (but Sancerre isn't), those lines are just 42 syllables and ten seconds of your life you'll never get back. This might have been different if Mr. Wise had invested more time convincing us the exam is actually a matter of life and death or that the commitment of these men, though undoubtedly time-consuming, is actually expensive in terms of personal relationships, divorces, dying parents, newborn sons, whatever. Alas he assumes we'd care, that the structure of the exam movie, a conveyor belt of emotions, would be enough. It isn't.

What's more frustrating about the movie though, is that there are some really compelling stories to explore. The relationship between the Brian, Dustin, and Ian, for example, seems especially ripe for dramatic exploration (DLynn Proctor was based in Dallas and so he's not as involved.) In one of the best scenes, an extended take of Russian Ark proportions, Brian games out what will happen if all three pass (great!); if they all fail (not great, but okay!); if one passes (worse but at least the losers have each other) or, the worst outcome, if two pass and one fail the exam. Without spoiling anything, suffice to say the real story — the story I would have liked to see unfold — is how the friends deal with the ultimate result of the exam. Instead, there's just a few minutes of some strangely drama-killing addenda, and the credits. And if I didn't force myself to swallow some of it for professional reasons, I would have spit it out immediately.

Unless you are already knowledgeable about wine, unless you care to spend hours tasting something almost completely devoid of context, there's little of interest in the movie. In many ways, it's like one of the blind tastings we see so much of: refined, soulless, and pointless.

Rating: 2/5 stars

· All Eater at the Movies [-E-]
· Watch a Trailer to Somm [-E-]
· Watch a Clip From Somm With Hardcore Blind Tastings [-E-]
· Eater Interviews: Somm Director Jason Wise [-E-]
· All Somm Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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