CHICAGO – Mention the name Harry Lennix, and images of his many character roles are bound to emerge – Harold Cooper in the TV series “The Blacklist,” General Swanwick from “Batman v Superman” and Commissioner Blades from Spike Lee’s recent “Chi-Raq.” The deeply knowledgeable Lennix brings his years of dramatic expertise, as he directs the Congo Square Theatre Company’s world premiere stage play “A Small Oak Tree Runs Red.’
Frustrating ‘Somm’ Fails to Justify a Tasting
CHICAGO – “The history of wine is fascinating” – This is only one of many things in the frustrating “Somm,” opening today in Chicago at the Music Box and accompanied by actual wine tastings in the theater, that we’re told but not really shown. I love wine. I drink it too often. And “Somm” should be an easy sell to wine lovers but it isn’t really about one of the most beloved beverages in the world. It’s about the people who obsess over it. And there’s a key difference. Instead of a study of why wine engenders such adoration and dedication that people make a career of being experts about it, we spend way too much time on the literal process of becoming a Master Sommelier. It becomes about the drinker instead of the drink and, to be blunt, the drinkers in this film aren’t interesting enough to justify its existence.
That might sound mean. It’s not. I’m not interesting enough to make a documentary about either. (My kids, maybe.) And the guys at the center of “Somm,” the surprisingly alpha male fellas who work night and day to become Master Sommeliers, can’t carry a film either. As they study their flash cards and perform home-tastings way into the night, the film about them starts to become numbingly repetitive. The fact is that the art of being a Sommelier is about repetition: Tasting, reading, studying wine and its history to that point that you can tell the difference between olive and green pepper and know if a wine comes from the Northern or Southern Rhone based on its smell. And because this expertise is so sensory – smelling, tasting, etc. – it’s a hard one to convey through film without it becoming disengaging. Watching people drink wine loses interest fast.
Photo credit: Samuel Goldwyn
It doesn’t help that the guys at the core of “Somm” aren’t the most likable lot. They’re pretty intensely arrogant, as I suppose one has to be if they’re at the center of a film about their expertise, but I think it’s the fault of the filmmakers and not the gentlemen that we never get to know them outside of their intense passion for wine. There are brief interviews with girlfriends and family but they are largely just in pursuit of pointing out the gentlemen’s intensity. “Wine, family, and then me,” says one put-upon significant other. To really turn these gentlemen into more than mere competitors, we needed to see them more in their natural element.
Instead of humanizing the competitors, the creators of “Somm” seem intent on showing the intensity of their pursuit, often comparing it to other sports or even climbing Mount Everest. It made me realize that alpha males annoy me, even in the world of wine. When the guys seem more insecure, down-to-Earth, or when one even admits, “The reality is you have no clue what the wines are even when you think you do,” then we can see what “Somm” could have been. Instead of creating a well-rounded portrait of the men who turn their lives over to wine or even an ode to the grape drink itself, “Somm” falls somewhere in the middle. It’s a documentary about obsession that’s easy to dismiss.