A Good Year

| November 17, 2006

A Good Year, Ridley Scott’s latest collaboration with Russell Crowe, is quite a departure from their last film together, Gladiator. Instead of delivering a brutal Oscar-winner, the two have created a romantic comedy. A Good Year is unlikely to win any Oscars, but within the genre of romantic comedy, the film offers a reasonably entertaining portrait of a man who learns there is more to life than money.
Crowe’s character, a ruthless trader in London, travels to Provence to sell his dead uncle’s winery and estate. While there, he falls in love. And meets his illegitimate cousin. And learns to appreciate the slow-pace of life in France. And I don’t feel I am giving anything away if I tell you that he decides to stay in France. This film does not hold a lot of suspense; the European romance genre is a well-traveled path. There could be a whole section of the movie rental store devoted to movies depicting characters falling in love with Italy and France. These movies generally offer bright colors, luscious scenery, and a sensual obsession with food and wine. A Good Year is no different.
Crowe adopts an almost goofy fa├žade, mumbling and pratfalling his way into a young French woman’s heart. Their relationship is underwritten, traveling in fast forward from their first accidental (and disastrous, of course) meeting to Skinner’s declaration of lifelong passion. Marion Cotillard does make a lovely exotic beauty (and with a character name like Fanny Chenal, she better be pretty). But she is never given enough screen time or character complexity to act as an agent of change for Skinner.
Skinner’s deepening love for the town in which he spent his childhood is the true romance of the film. The payoff of his transformation is lessened, however, because Skinner isn’t evil enough by half. He appreciates his loyal assistant, exchanges amusing banter with his best friend / realtor, and seems to slide easily back into the French way of life. He’s generally pretty likeable, despite being a self-described asshole.
Skinner’s big trauma is that he lost his friendship with his Uncle Henry, the man with whom he spent time at this chateau during his childhood. From the moment Skinner returns to France, he relives detailed memories with his sage uncle (Albert Finney), a man who embraces all the pleasures in life. He teaches young Max (Freddie Highmore from Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) lessons about wine, women, and learning to handle defeat. These scenes between Finney and Highmore are rather delightful, but we never see the moment that Henry and Skinner broke off their relationship.
Screen writer Marc Klein, who bases his screenplay on the novel of the same name by Peter Mayle, overlooks an opportunity to force Skinner to face his demons by failing to show us the scene in which the two men stop talking. Even a simple scene during which Skinner imagines his Uncle Henry blind and dying alone would help us understand Skinner’s need for redemption. I’m not usually one to suggest what a movie should have done. If I could do that, I would write my own movie script. Yet I was disappointed that Klein offers us only a relatively mild awakening without a true realization of loss.
Crowe’s attempts to be goofy, considering his cinematic and real-life reputation as something of a brute, are perversely enjoyable. He’s out of his element, but that’s kind of the point. Stronger performances come from Tom Hollander as Skinner’s realtor Charlie and Didier Bourdon as winemaker Francis Duflot. Again, Klein seems to overlook something. Skinner repeatedly tries the wine grown on his uncle’s estate and finds it truly repulsive. Yet he never questions Duflot’s competence. The two men duke it out on the tennis court when the real issue goes unspoken. Seems odd. A rather silly mystery involving miraculous wine produced by a mysterious grower doesn’t help the film achieve narrative depth or coherence.
Still, A Good Year is a harmless tale of one man’s realization that he wants to enjoy life instead of simply living it. Sure, there’s something slightly unfair in presenting a rich guy getting off the fast track to live a life of leisure in France, as if we all could make millions everyday and then inherit a French estate. Yet there is something beautifully naïve about the film’s innocent enjoinder to smell the roses…er, the Bordeaux. If you don’t expect A Good Year to deliver more than a reasonably entertaining couple of hours at the cinema, you won’t be disappointed.

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