I last saw Rachael Leigh Cook as the high school wallflower in 1999’s She’s All That, so I was surprised to learn that she’s continued acting ever since and that she’s ventured onto my Hallmark playlist. Her latest movie, Autumn in the Vineyard, doesn’t soar to the artistic heights of that teenage classic – okay, neither movie soars to any heights, but at least she brings some of that Laney Boggs fire to another numbingly formulaic romance. Cook plays Frankie Baldwin, a woman who’s at a crossroads in life and decides to chart a new course by buying a friend’s vineyard. Though she hails from one of the area’s most prominent grape-producing families, she doesn’t have that much capital nor does she have a lot of experience overseeing such a large production. That’s okay though because she’s spunky and willing to learn. Plus, she has the support of Sorrento Farms’ previous owner, Flo.
The problem is that Flo is newly divorced and her ex-husband, who’s chilling out in Costa Rica and nowhere to be found, has also just sold the farm to Nate Deluca (Brendan Penny), from the town’s other esteemed family. He happens to be Frankie’s former flame but more importantly, he’s very well educated with a Ph.D in microbiology. This weird education war is continually emphasized to distinguish Frankie and her hands on “grape whisperer” ways with Nate and his cold, distant scientific methods. Who will win out in the end? Will it be the old, earthy traditions passed down through the generations or will science and technology have the final say? That point is made, but it’s an odd fight to be having. Nate seems like he’s passing judgment on Frankie, and thus her intelligence, for not having completed university while she has a strange and deep-seated contempt for his smarts. Can we put aside our prejudices, please?
Their rivalry is elevated when a judge suggests they share the property while the divorce court sorts out ownership. They manage to draw up lines of demarcation, but it’s a tricky split, one made worse by the upcoming harvest. With only a few weeks until they must bring in the grapes, they can’t afford to wait for a decision. Nate proposes what’s supposed to be a clever challenge but is really just another eye-rolling contrivance to perk up the story. He suggests that using their own methods, whoever yields the largest haul will win the whole damn thing. A little extreme and sure to collapse under a legal challenge, but whatever gets them scurrying.
The movie moves in fits and starts, which can happen when you’re ticking off the plot points checklist in your generic romance. Cook and Penny are agreeable together, but their characters are quick to blow up at each other or share an intimate and honest moment, depending on what is needed in the act. I was more interested in a few other relationships in the story, like Frankie and her brother or Frankie and a wandering llama.
Hallmark continues to show improvement this year by casting actors of color in speaking roles, and by improvement, I mean that someone occasionally has a couple minutes of screen time. It also tries to shore up its artistic credentials with some nice and varied shots of the vineyards. It’s not A Walk in the Clouds beautiful, my standard for movies set in wine country, but it’s a step up from the usual nameless small town setting.
Dir: Scott Smith
Writer: Suzette Couture
Cast: Rachael Leigh Cook, Brendan Penny, Jeremy Guilbaut, Tom Butler, Laura Sotis, Marcus Rosner, Julian Christopher, Lucia Walters
Time: 83 min
Country: United States