A Good Year
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Russell Crowe, Albert Finney, Marion Cotillard
Russell Crowe is an asshole. In the movie, I mean. But his redemption is inevitable. (Again, we’re talkin’ strictly about the film.) Call it “Under the Provencal Sun,” Ridley Scott’s more masculine, less mawkish take on that midlife crisis/getting your values straight fairy tale that would usually be labeled a “chick flick.”
After an opening scene of idyllic childhood under the tutelage of a doting Albert Finney, we’re introduced to Crowe’s Max Skinner, a high-powered trader on whatever London uses for a Wall Street. We watch him condescend to his employees, manipulate the market in a questionable but highly profitable manner, and generally seem shallow and unlikable.
News of Finney’s death propels Crowe to the old man’s French estate, where Finney poured wise life lessons and the wine produced on his property. The charmless Crowe intends to sell the dilapidated vineyard and get out with the cash, but every viewer knows the money-grubbing urbanite is doomed to have comical and heartwarming interactions with the local and fall for a strong-willed local girl (a winning Marion Cotillard) who will make him give up his Type A personality for the joys of the landed gentry. This is a given, and we cannot hope for any real surprises from a movie like this. The best we can hope for is that director Ridley Scott will take an interesting route to the obvious destination.
And, by and large, he does. Last summer’s “16 Blocks” was a small, tense little movie that was less entertaining for its story than for Richard Donner’s sure directorial command. Similarly, this bastard cousin to “Under the Tuscan Sun” avoids most of the lazy, soppy conventions of this sort of often cynically heartwarming fare. The guy who gave us “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down” does not linger on overdrawn moments of maudlin emotion, nor does he compose every shot to be an Impressionist fantasy. The movie, as the term implies, moves. Scott keeps things in action with a ruthless efficiency that invigorates a fairly standard story.
Writer Marc Klein, adapting Peter Mayle’s novel, keeps the story’s flow and side complications a bit off-balance, which is nice, but off-balance is also a problem of the film. It’s admirable that Crowe does not play his role to ingratiate himself to the viewer, but does he have to be this utterly devoid of charisma or humanity? Well, maybe he does. Still, it’s nice to see him not blatantly pandering for an Oscar. Other off-kilter elements of the story fall more squarely on Scott and Klein. Side elements and characters pop in and out of the film without much satisfactory purpose or resolution. The mystery of a local vintage far superior to the crap currently filling the old vineyard’s cellars is only partially dealt with, Crowe’s lovely and acerbic assistant shows up in a coda that really wasn’t earned in the film, even if it’s nice to see her get a last bit of screen time. And Scott and Co. really can’t decide how wacky a film they’re trying to make. Scott’s dramatic precision is leavened randomly, sometimes jarringly, with moments probably intended to be high comedy.
Some will call this film a forgettable mess, and they’ll have reason. But it’s not a bad film, it’s just an unremarkable one. It comes down to taste and desire. If the combination of a familiar romantic story and uncomfortable rhythms appeals, you’ll enjoy it. The film is very well cast, with the arguable exception of the lead, and a couple hours of pastoral French settings ain’t bad, either. It’s one of those films that will serve its target audience, not expand it.