Thursday 25 May 2017

Great Wine Moments In Movie History X: Noble Rot

First things first: Noble Rot was never actually made. Had it seen the light of day, it would have appeared some time around the end of 1983 and its principal star would have been John Belushi, of Saturday Night Live, Animal House and The Blues Brothers fame. Yes, the Noble Rot of the title does indeed refer to botrytis cinerea and, yes, wine is central to the premise of the film. Only two things in fact stood between Noble Rot and worldwide acclaim: the first was that Belushi died of a drug overdose in March, 1982; the second was the uncomfortable truth that Noble Rot was, according to Mike Ovitz, the Hollywood agent, 'Terrible'; adding, just to be clear, 'No-one will ever make this picture'.

This hasn't stopped it from acquring a curious, speculative life-in-death on the internet. There's more than one website dedicated to picking over the chimerical possibilities embodied in the script of Noble Rot - all that now remains of the project - and guessing how it might have provided Belushi with both a new career direction and a more impressive cultural legacy. Which, in turn, is a mystery in itself - the reverence which still haloes his name, twenty-five years after his death. After all, in this country at least, he was pretty good in Animal House, pretty tiresome in The Blues Brothers, and the bits of SNL that have floated up on YouTube are not without interest, but they don't make him look like a comic genius - more like someone whose edgy physical presence and gift for a certain kind of reckless deadpan made him the pet of his generation, but not much more than that, not after all this time.

At the start of the Eighties, though, he was so huge that plenty of people made it their business to find material that would enlarge the opportunities for his talents; and Noble Rot was the script in which he invested his last, best, most drug-addled hopes. The premise of the movie? Johnny Glorioso (played by Belushi), the undependable, gifted, scion of a tiny-but-perfect Sonoma winemaking family, has to take four bottles of the estate's finest produce (touched by botrytis, naturally) to a wine contest in New York, beat the pants off the opposition (which includes Blue Nun and Mateus, seriously) and thereby establish Glorioso Vineyards as a true contender. On the flight over, he falls into the hands of the duplicitous Christine (played by God knows who) at which point it turns into a diamonds-and-fraud caper, the sort that might once have starred Cary Grant or, at a pinch, William Powell.

Belushi himself - according to Bob Woodward's determinedly monotonous Wired: The Short Life And Fast Times Of John Belishi - had a hand in the script, and you can glimpse him and his co-writer Don Novello struggling to escape the burden of Animal House/Bluto Blutarsky ('Beneath that cold, beautiful exterior is a condescending person as vulnerable as any of us') without ever managing anything authentically clever ('The wine business isn't all popsicles and roses either.'). The idea canvassed at the time was that Belushi's genius for physical expression - plus the goodwill of his core audience - would be enough to bring the film to life. 'It needs a lot of work, John,' Belushi's manager told him; 'I'll make it work,' Belushi replied.

But the fact is that wherever you look, the storyline is so inert and the dialogue so pasteboard ('Somebody in your company must be in on it'; 'They may think he really is a vintner from California'; 'I'm glad I decided to fly commercially'), that no-one, not even Orson Welles (who gets his own freakish cameo in the second half) could have made much of it. Worse, no-one seems to have noticed that wine is, in itself, a quintessentially boring subject to base a movie on. Belushi must have assumed that wine would somehow lend classiness, sauvity, to his muddled character, something different from his usual screen persona. But wine is no more inherently interesting than potatoes; in fact its mere presence further deadens what is already straining to become a so-so jewellery heist romcom. Sideways (2004) at least addresses the boringness of wine and its devotees; Sideways is very slightly the film Noble Rot wanted to be. But even Sideways is a bit boring.

Anyway, Noble Rot didn't stay the course. It was in the process of being edged out by, of all things, a movie version of The Joy Of Sex when Belushi overdosed. But the script persists; and will go on persisting, a monument to a special kind of credulity. Until, possibly, they get Eddie Murphy to come out of retirement.


NB: I am indebted to David Secombe - cultural contrarian, cineaste and curator of The London Column - for the original tip-off about this doomed, depressing and truly futile project.

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