The ability to make someone laugh out loud is rare. Uncorked, now on Netflix, made me laugh out loud three or four times. The film, directed and written by Prentice Penny (Insecure), is a drama rather than a comedy, but the performances, helped along by Penny’s knack for dialogue, feel so human that the distinction feels irrelevant. Laughter and tears aren’t mutually exclusive in life, nor are they here, as the story of a young man pursuing his passion for wine rather than take over his father’s barbecue restaurant threads the needle of being believable, emotionally engaging, and fulfilling. The film isn’t without its flaws, but they’re all forgivable in light of how well it hits the feel-good bullseye.
The conceit of a son reluctant to follow in his father’s footsteps is familiar, but the juxtaposition of the worlds of wine and barbecue lend Uncorked a fresh spin. Elijah (Mamoudou Athie) has dreams of becoming a Master Sommelier, but finds himself putting off taking the notoriously difficult qualifying exam out of both self-doubt and his unwillingness to go against his father Louis (Courtney B. Vance), who wants Elijah to take over the business Louis’ father started. Though Elijah’s mother Sylvia (Niecy Nash) supports her son no matter what, Louis takes Elijah’s disinterest personally, as he and most of Elijah’s extended family perceive the world of wine as something snobby and removed from them.
The idea that certain things are deemed inaccessible to or not “for” those of lower- or middle-class backgrounds is handled delicately, and one of the best things about Penny’s script. At one point, Louis explicitly asks Elijah if he thinks he’s too good for barbecue, and while Elijah’s classmates don’t seem to worry about money, even splitting living expenses with him when their course eventually takes them abroad, just how Elijah plans to fund his studies is a major part of the film. Though the writer-director doesn’t delve too deeply into the classism that can be present in the world of food, the faint undertones of it still help Uncorked feel richer.
A major personal upheaval colors the second half of the film, which finds Elijah more actively struggling with his responsibility to his family and the knowledge that, maybe, the barbecue restaurant wasn’t exactly his father’s passion, either. As Louis and Elijah try to coexist, Vance and Athie get a chance to show off their acting chops. Athie is able to swing from charmingly goofy to frighteningly sober in an instant without seeming like he’s playing two different characters, and it’s easy to see exactly why Tanya (Sasha Compère) falls for him. Vance, whose turn in The People v. O. J. Simpson remains one of the best performances in recent memory, performs a similar balancing act as Louis reconciles his frustration with his son with his love for him.
Their push-and-pull dynamic ranges from gentle ribbing to outright arguments, sometimes in the same scene, and that changing shape, reflective of how difficult such differences can be to manage in real life, makes it less frustrating that Uncorked ends on a note of uncertainty. The ultimate message of the film is to follow your passions, but Penny recognizes the compromises and sacrifices that are necessary, as well as the experiences that might be missed by choosing one path over another.
Through it all, Penny sprinkles in generous dashes of humor, from Elijah’s sister’s (Kelly Jenrette) protectiveness of a good blazer, to Louis attempting to ply a bartender for a free drink in the name of reparations. It’s the same kind of humor that colors Penny’s past work (episodes of Insecure, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Happy Endings), and is carried off wonderfully by the cast. The only thing in the movie that doesn’t pop is its literal color, as all of the scenes are saturated in a blue that washes out the actors’ features and makes Uncorked seem much gloomier and grimmer than it actually is.
But that’s a relatively small complaint when the rest of Uncorked is so beautifully executed. It’s ultimately not that informative about wine nor barbecue (though perhaps enlightening for those who had no idea that Master Sommeliers exist), but wine is the pretext that Penny uses to tell a compelling, believable family story. This is a film about a father and son coming to terms with each others’ choices and learning to find a way forward, mixing tears and laughter together for an affecting ride.
Uncorked is streaming on Netflix now.