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Alan Rickman, the comedic corker

In 'Bottle Shock,' he plays British snobbery with attuned subtlety, not gross caricature.

August 16, 2008|Matthew DeBord | Special to The Times

Alan Rickman practices a stealth approach to comedy -- laughs for him are the product of a dry, reserved and withholding theatrical temperament. All veddy, veddy English, of course (appropriate for an actor who spent time in Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company). But Rickman also delights in flouting expectations.

He's funny. But he's funny in a way that audiences can connect with. Anyone who has enjoyed him as Severus Snape in the "Harry Potter" movies, the continually flabbergasted Sheriff of Nottingham in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" (1991) or the psychopathic and exasperated villain Hans Gruber in "Die Hard" (1988) can attest to this.

Rickman calls this quality the "once-upon-a-time factor." Relaxing with a cup of tea at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills, he explains that it occurs "when it feels as if a movie is about the audience and people are truly engaged with the story."

Rickman's talent for humor, storytelling and, above all, generosity is on abundant display in "Bottle Shock," which opened last week in Los Angeles. It's the second film that he's done with writer-director Randall Miller and co-writer Jody Savin (the first was the yet-to-be-released "Nobel Son").

"This is the Randy and Jody part of my life," Rickman says with his trademark weary archness, a quality that he deftly alternates with effusive praise for his artistic collaborators. "It's a unique thing that Randy and Jody have -- a totally unique and independent energy."

If 2004's "Sideways" gave us the melancholy-romantic-middle-age-loser take on the wine world, then "Bottle Shock" gives us the mock-heroic-triumph-of-the-underdog version. Set in 1976 (with the wardrobe and hairstyles to prove it), the film dramatizes the well-worn story of the so-called Judgment of Paris and the now-legendary wine-tasting competition staged in the City of Light, in which a batch of upstart California bottlings were pitted against the best France had to offer -- and won. The understandably shocking results made it into Time magazine, and the California wine boom was officially off and slurping.

Rickman, 62, plays Steven Spurrier, who in the early years of the Me Decade was a struggling, 32-year-old British wine merchant in Paris. (Clearly, "Bottle Shock" has taken some liberties with the age thing.) There's a long history of Englishmen and their long love of French wine -- the Anglophone oenophile essentially defined the popular caricature of the wine snob. Spurrier was cut from that cloth. His objective in staging the Judgment of Paris, according to the "Bottle Shock" script, was to gin up publicity for his store. Little did he know that he would, by traveling to the then-backwater Napa Valley and returning with their finest juice, set the wine world on its ear. (Spurrier has been more closely involved with another movie on the Paris tasting, which has not yet been cast; reportedly he was less than thrilled with the way his character was written in "Bottle Shock.")

Rickman, who spends the entire film outfitted -- and, he says, sweltering -- in bespoke-ish three-piece suits and a necktie, nails Spurrier without ever descending into easy cliches. There are, of course, the cerebral ruminations on the aromas and flavors of wine, notably a Chardonnay produced by Chateau Montelena, the winery that the script focuses on (and that, ironically, was recently purchased by a French winery, Bordeaux's Chateau Cos d'Estournel). There are also moments of hilarity, such as when Spurrier's clattering, rented Gremlin blows a tire on a dusty Napa byway. But Rickman also delivers revelation: Spurrier came to America to find the wines wanting but in the end, he admits, slightly awe-struck, "these California wines are so good."

In a weird twist on events, Rickman had actually met Spurrier years ago, "at a friend's vineyard in Italy." So, naturally, as Rickman puts it, he "rang him up." At the time, Spurrier was keen to remind Rickman that in 2006, he had restaged the Judgment of Paris -- and that the California wines won again (an outcome that serves as an epilogue in "Bottle Shock").

Beyond that, Rickman didn't particularly model his performance on Spurrier, choosing instead to add nuance to a familiar English type. "I knew it was going to be an impersonation," he says. "I was playing the alien abroad." He imbued Spurrier with an essential attitude of English imperiousness but set about equally to reveal him as he undertakes a process of discovery.

Still, he concedes, there's "nothing funnier than an angry Englishman." The script repeatedly places Spurrier in humiliating experiences, all of which he seethingly endures. Even the broiling Napa weather, so crucial to producing ripe grapes, doesn't faze the guy.

"He doesn't feel the heat," Rickman says, "because he's English."

This careful balance between emerging enthusiasm and cultural reserve is on vivid display in "Bottle Shock" when Rickman acts opposite Bill Pullman, who portrays Chateau Montelena's crusty, visionary founder, Jim Barrett (the film also features several young actors, including Chris Pine as Jim's randy, directionless son, Bo, and Freddy Rodriguez as an ambitious winemaker of Mexican heritage struggling to overcome racist attitudes). Rickman knew during the filmmaking process that Pullman had the tougher role to pull off, and he credits him with a terrific performance.

Still, while the movie has many heroes, it's Spurrier's experience that drives the action. This provoked Rickman's more important quest. "Given that his objectives are so clear, I had to locate the moments when he discovers things. I had to find out where his innocence is."

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