Movie review: Family drama ‘Uncorked’ fuses hip-hop culture with passion for wine

Tribune Content Agency

HBO’s “Insecure” showrunner Prentice Penny makes his feature directorial debut with a family drama, “Uncorked.” It’s the story of a young man in Memphis, Elijah (Mamoudou Athie), whose dreams of becoming a master sommelier conflict with his father Louis’ (Courtney B. Vance) hopes that he’ll take over the family barbecue joint.

“Uncorked” opens with a scene of Elijah at work in a wine shop, suggesting wines to a comely customer with a variety of hip-hop analogies. The reliable chardonnay is the Jay-Z of wine, while the spicier pinot grigio is the Kanye West, and, the sweeter riesling is of course the Drake of wine, “in its feelings.” It’s as if Penny envisioned the interaction, as a young black man fuses hip-hop culture with his passion for wine, and then spun the story out from there. Who is he? Where is he from? Starting with these questions, Penny builds and blends his story.

Elijah’s interest in wine as a career isn’t too interesting to his father, the stern pit master Louis, who expects and hopes his son will continue the family business, as he did. But Elijah, a bit of a black sheep in the family, pursues his dream. He enrolls in school to study for the exam to become a master sommelier, which involves accruing such a deep well of knowledge about geography, grape varietals, winemaking and taste that an entrant can pass a blind taste test.

Despite his father’s reservations, Elijah’s journey becomes inextricably intertwined with his mother’s (Niecy Nash) hopes and dreams for him to follow his bliss, and in his relationship with Tanya (Sasha Compère), the aforementioned wine shop customer, who urges him on his studies. There’s almost an element of a sports or competition movie, with the studying and training montages, the rivals, the climactic performance of a skill honed and developed with time and training.

Penny brings a smooth style and aesthetic to the film, infusing Elijah’s demanding sommelier training with hip-hop flair (even in Paris, with French hip-hop on the soundtrack), as well as rich, saturated cinematography by Elliott Davis. Music video-style montages offer up a taste of Memphis culture, from the roller rinks to the juke joints.

The main rift in the film is between Elijah and his father, who can’t see eye to eye on Elijah’s future. It’s a familiar story, and Penny massages the stakes with a cancer subplot and money woes, but the conflict in the film is strangely muted.

Athie is a fascinating but unexpected actor. He has a compelling screen presence, but he doesn’t have the same kind of swaggering charisma Vance does, or the natural warmth and humor of Nash. He seems a bit odd, a bit out of place, which is the right dynamic for this film featuring a challenging father/son relationship between two men who struggle to find common ground.

Eventually, through emotional ups and downs and personal setbacks, Elijah learns to integrate all the different aspects of himself that make him who he is, so that eventually he can heal, and then blossom. “Uncorked” is a familiar sort of story in a unique setting. The result is well-rounded, a bit too dry, yet it goes down with a pleasant finish.



2.5 stars

Cast: Mamoudou Athie, Courtney B. Vance, Niecy Nash, Matt McGorry, Sasha Compere, Gil Ozeri.

Directed by Prentice Penny.

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

No MPAA rating.


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