In high school, my brother and I used to check out the cheapest video rentals we could find, paying for them with change we nicked from our parents’ various end-of-day repositories. This usually meant very few new releases and lots of “straight-to-DVD” flicks. Most of the time this resulted in a hilariously high level of familiarity with B-movie classics like Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, but sometimes we found a true gem. One of these was the quirky indie flick Uncorked.
Uncorked, alternately titled At Satchem Farm, is a film that is, at least on the surface, about a family of Brits living in California on an expansive estate, none of whom seem to be employed and who are starting to feel the pangs of not being rich enough. It’s true: the movie has some deeply problematic elements, like when Uncle Cullen (played by the inimitable Nigel Hawthorne) says from the top of his $125,000 plexiglas pillar, “Money is just a congealed form of energy.” Or the questionably “amusing” role that Asian-Americans play to the primarily all white main cast (both the tribe of Hmong gardeners as well as Keone Young’s Mr. Tang, wine connoisseur and business man extraordinaire are put into positions in which they titillate the white folks by gardening and playing music, though it’s true that Mr. Tang’s guitar solo is pretty hilarious – more for Young’s hamming it up for the camera and the unexpected boisterousness of his performance compared to his character’s otherwise reserved and genteel manners of expression).
And certainly, looking back with older and more educated eyes, I can see those problematic features of the film. But I can also see the ways that the film addresses these problems thoughtfully: yes, these are a bunch of extremely privileged white people. But it’s interesting to me how, even without using terms like “privilege,” the ultimate goal of the film is to show these people coming to grips with their privilege and learning to use it in constructive ways. Minnie Driver’s wealthy stockbroker character learns to dump her money (as well as her emotional generosity) into friends who need it. Rufus Sewell’s adorably type-A and freakishly judgmental character learns to stop chasing Ponzi schemes, let go of his internalized weird ideas about earning people’s approval through public values of success, and even to stop being such a snap-judgment racist asshole when he realizes his own brother married one of the Hmong gardener women and no one told him because he’s such a sensitive little asshole that they didn’t know how he’d react. There’s a weird moment of grace or hope or comeuppance or something that happens there as you see, dawning all over this man’s face, “My god. What have I become?”
Look, nobody owes this guy a round of applause or anything. Had I seen this film as a better educated, more aware adult rather than as a fairly sheltered, ignorant high school student, I would have rolled my eyes at this guy. (“Manganese? Manganese!? MANGANESE! Even the word is ludicrous!”) But for the person I was at that age, in that time, it was something akin to the miraculous for me to be able to see these people start to recognize their privilege masquerading as self-obsession, start to see it and twist how they labored under it so that they were using it for good ends, instead. No one in this movie becomes a Civil Rights hero or anything; but call it a parable of the beginning of transformation. How love, and being shaken out of our cocoon of self-obsession by sometimes rough measures, can put our feet on a path that will wind around to …who knows? Endless possibilities.
Anyway, the film itself is charming but a bit crappily edited (see the “stilt scene” for some pretty horrifying capture freezes), and you’ll learn to laugh at the hopeless rich as they bemoan their serious White Whines: “That’s not a ham, is it. It’s a tofu, in the shape of a ham. [Exasperated sigh.]” Accompanied by a gorgeous acoustic guitar soundtrack by Jeff Danna, there are elements worth cringing at and elements worth appreciating, but I think, ultimately, it’s worth a viewing. (And, it’s available on Netflix Instant right now.)