Take Russell Crowe, throw in a vineyard and a French chateau, toss in a beautiful, hot-headed woman, stomp it to a mush in a big wooden tub, and you get A Good Year, the latest directorial effort of Ridley Scott -- a film with all the subtlety and bouquet of a screw-top bottle of wine purchased in the bargain bin of your local supermarket. In A Good Year, adapted by Marc Klein from the book by Peter Mayle, we meet Max Skinner (Crowe), a super-rich businessman with a slightly shady moral code -- think of him as Gordon Gekko, but with less charm and personality.
Max is all about making money, whatever the cost; he barrels his way through life, stomping ruthlessly over anyone who gets in his path. Max doesn't care about anyone or anything, unless there's a profit in it -- until the day he hears that his Uncle Henry (Albert Finney) has died, leaving him the charming-but-dilapidated vineyard and chateau in France where Max spent his boyhood.
Of course, Max has to go to the chateau himself to handle details like taking pics for his real estate guy, so he can unload the place as quickly as possible -- right in the middle of a scandal involving a questionable stock transaction that could finally land his butt in a sling. Max goes to France reluctantly, in part because he hadn't stayed in touch with dear old Uncle Henry -- the man who was, ostensibly, the most important influence in his life -- for years. Once there, he must deal with Francois, who has run the winery for Uncle Henry for decades, and who fully expects Max to keep things going as they have been. When Francois learns that Max intends, as the sole surviving heir, to sell off the chateau to the highest bidder, he is understandably annoyed and contrives to make the sale as difficult as possible by convincing Max that the vineyard and its grapes are worthless. If this doesn't sound like the most original or exciting idea for a film starring Crowe, well, you're right -- it isn't.
To further complicate matters, along comes a cute little blond, Christie Roberts (Abbie Cornish), who has been backpacking around Europe on her way to the chateau to see her father -- Uncle Henry. She doesn't have a birth certificate to prove her heritage, but she does have a photo of herself with her father -- and his nose -- and as Max learns, children born out of wedlock need only the loosest claim to their heritage, apparently, to upset an estate settlement in France. Now that he's no longer the sole heir, Max has to decide whether to try to sell the chateau out from under the cousin he never knew, before she can figure out that it's rightfully hers. And for added fun and local flavor, Max meets (well, nearly runs over) a local hot-headed beauty, Fanny (Marion Cotillard) -- desired by all, but attainable by none. Ah, nothing like a nice manly challenge to stir things up a bit.
Aside from being almost unbearably sappy, A Good Year is just utterly predictable -- and not in a good way -- from beginning to end. You know, from the first ten minutes of the film, pretty much exactly how it's going to play out -- and it doesn't do anything along the way to make itself more interesting. For all the complexity of the plot, it might have been culled from a Danielle Steel novel. Not having read the book from which the script was adapted, I can't say with certainty whether this is the fault of the source material or the adapter, but either way, it's just bland and boring. I can't imagine that if this film had been made by a lesser-known director and with a less-famous leading man, that it would have been accepted by at the Toronto International Film Festival, and I wonder what better films didn't make the cut there to allow room for this film.
The script makes heavy-handed use of flashbacks, presumably to give Albert Finney something to do. We see lots of softly-focused scenes of young Max (Freddie Highmore, one of the film's few highlights), cheating at chess, getting angry when he loses at tennis, and sipping wine -- all, we can assume, meant to give us the back story without which we couldn't possibly understand why Max is such a raging jerk who always wants to win, while also showing us that, hey, he was also once this cute kid, and therefore must be redeemable somewhere inside his shriveled-up heart. Kind of like the Star Wars movies going back and showing us cute little Anakin before he became the evil Darth Vader -- only with less action, less character development, and no cool scenes of fighting space ships to distract us from the tepid storyline.
Crowe does his best here to make the most of the lackluster script, but the film just feels forced from beginning to end. He does, however, prove once again that he cleans up remarkably well for a man who can look so grungy at times; when Crowe drops a good 20 pounds, losing the puffiness that his face gets when he's on his down-time, and does the clean-shaven, crisp-white-shirt look, it's easy enough to buy him as an egomaniacal stockbroker who would sell out out his own grandmother to make an extra $75 million. Crowe has this remarkable chameleon-like ability that marks him as a really great actor -- you can buy him as a gladiator, a schizophrenic math whiz, or whatever other guise he chooses to assume, and he instantly becomes that character, which is, no doubt, at least partlly why Ridley Scott has partnered with him so frequently of late.
With A Good Year, though, you have to wonder what on earth Scott and Crowe were thinking; the film is such a departure from Scott's usual films that I had to double-check to make sure he was really the director. It's hard to imagine that either Scott or Crowe read this script and was really excited about it, although perhaps Crowe thought that with his talent, he could imbue the wooden character of Max with enough layers to flesh him out into a real man. Sadly, it just doesn't work, and you're left, at the end, being glad that it's finally over, and hoping that Scott and Crowe's next effort, American Gangster, will be worth the time you invest in watching it.