A good year makes an awful plotlineSome romance films conjure up the image of a guy (yes, definitely male) sitting around mashing together the first ideas that come into his head. A busy executive who must learn how to slow down when the uncle who raised him dies ― touching! Oh, and he meets a “spunky” younger woman who teaches him how to love ― plausible! And set the whole thing in France ― original!
This is the premise of “A Good Year,” a novel by Peter Mayle that Ridley Scott inexplicably decided to turn into a film. The result wastes a few great actors and a director of mythic proportions on what can only be described as a stupid movie.
Russell Crowe plays businessman Max Skinner, your typical modern cinematic Scrooge ― the amoral head of a trading floor in London who never really knew how to lose. He’s in the middle of an incredibly lucrative (possibly illegal) gamble when the uncle who raised him (Albert Finney) dies, leaving no will, which means the estate he lived on for most of his life now belongs to Max. The pedestrian faux-brow-stroking metaphor for this one is wine ― the uncle’s estate includes a French winery run by the aging vintner Duflot (Didier Bourdon), a curmudgeon who is of course steadfastly opposed to Max’s plan to sell, even though he makes positively awful wine.
As soon as Max arrives in Provence the flashbacks start fast and furious. Finney is as genial and delightful as always, and Freddie Highmore of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” does another wonderful job as Max’s younger self.
A romance needs a girl and a tamer needs a shrew, and they don’t get much more cardboard than Fanny Chenal (Archie Panjabi), a waitress who has sworn off men forever. She’s completely turned off by Max’s despicable personality at first but then immediately and completely ends her years of solitude when she’s charmed by Max’s many skills, which include carrying plates and opening umbrellas.
Then there’s Christie (Abbie Cornish), the illegitimate daughter of Max’s uncle, who could ruin the sale if Max isn’t careful. She is, as the male characters say, “hot,” and, yes, spunky. Also she shows her buttocks.
But “A Good Year” is not totally worthless, at least visually. The scenery is completely gorgeous, and Ridley Scott’s camera savors every inch of the aging villa of Max’s childhood as one would, well, a fine wine.
The scenes of the touristy town where Max meets Fanny rather break the illusion of the isolated Provencal retreat, but the wide shots of the vineyards and the lovely, earthy estate grounds more than compensate. The flashback scenes are very well acted and well filmed, and the whole thing must have been nothing but fun to make.
Therein probably lies the explanation for the existence of this film ― everyone just wanted to be paid to hang out in Provence for a while. But even if you can’t afford to fly halfway around the world, there are better films made in Provence and better boks about it. You might start with “A Year in Provence,” a travelogue also by Peter Mayle. Just steer clear of his fiction.
by Ben Applegate