A Good Year

Cast:
Russell Crowe as Max Skinner
Freddie Highmore as Young Max
Albert Finney as Uncle Henry
Archie Panjabi as Gemma
Tom Hollander as Charlie Willis
Abbie Cornish as Christie Roberts
Didier Bourdon as Francis Duflot
Isabelle Candelier as Ludivine Duflot
Marion Cotillard as Fanny Chenal
Rafe Spall as Kenny
Richard Coyle as Amis
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as Nathalie Auzet
Kenneth Cranham as Sir Nigel

Directed by Ridley Scott

Summary:
Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe reunite for a charming light comedy that pays homage to classic European cinema without being overly pretentious or particularly deep.

Story:
Maximillian Skinner (Russell Crowe) is a ruthless investment broker who takes some time off in the Provence region of France after inheriting a French villa from his late uncle (Albert Finney). As he tries to clean the place up, he begins to remember what it is like to relax and enjoy life, but when a woman claiming to be his uncle’s daughter (Abbie Cornish) shows up on the doorstep, it forces him to rethink his plans to sell the place to the highest buyer.

Analysis:
Considering how many serious movies they’ve made about serious subjects, you can’t really blame Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe for wanting to do something a bit lighter than “Gladiator.” One has to assume that part of the logic that went into this project was that it allowed the two friends to lounge around in beautiful French wine country and unwind after a number of stressful movies that didn’t work out quite well. “A Good Year” has very little to do with either of their previous work, but it still maintains the level of quality that one would expect.

Essentially, it’s a coming of age story for a hardworking man in his ’30s, whose life has gone in a completely different direction than one might imagine from watching his younger self, played by Freddie Highmore, spending his summers in France with his eccentric uncle (Albert Finney), playing chess and discussing literature and wine. 30 years later, the grown-up Max is a ruthless market investor whose only desire is to make money for himself and his clients, never worrying about the repercussions. When his uncle has died leaving Max his French villa and vineyard, Max’s first thought is how much money he can make by selling it. He takes a leave of absence to fix the place up, not knowing what a job that will be or the fact that the vineyard produces grapes unsuitable for drinkable wine. Another wrench is thrown into Max’s plans when a young woman claiming to be his uncle’s daughter (Abbie Cornish) shows up his doorstep, forcing Max to find a conscience when it comes to selling the villa.

There’s nothing particularly deep or meaningful about “A Good Year,” though it does a good job ignoring tried-and-true Hollywood romantic comedy formulas. Maybe it’s the Provence locale or the abundance of French supporting actors, but it has more of the feel of classic French or Italian cinema, something that immediately sets it apart from similar films. Then again, when it comes to the actual romance part of the equation, it uses a typical love-hate method of getting Crowe together with his female counterpart, a feisty local waitress who he knocks off the road while driving through the countryside. She is able to get a bit of revenge before they wind up in bed, but fortunately, that’s only one of the many subplots Max has to deal with on his French adventure. The main point is that his time spent in France is important to him finding the person he once was, which he lost when he moved into the cutthroat world of the stock market. As he works on cleaning up the villa, he has flashbacks to his childhood spent there with his uncle, and he interacts with his younger self as those memories come back.

Max isn’t always a very nice or likable character, forcing Crowe to turn on all of his charm and personality to sell him to the audience. Sometimes, he overdoes it, but most of the time, he’s charismatic enough to keep the audience interested and on his side. When the movie does get into the comedy, it’s not just Crowe delivering quips or one-liners with his love interest, as he throws himself into some physical slapstick comedy, like when he falls into the empty swimming pool and slips around in the mud trying to get out. Moments like those bring back memories of silly ’80s comedies like “Funny Farm” or “The Money Pit,” but it’s that sort of oddball combination of influences that makes it clearly a Ridley Scott film, much like “Matchstick Men.” Some of the funnier lines come from Max’s real estate agent, played by Tom Hollander, who gives another amusing performance as a slimeball, stealing the movie from under Crowe with a single exchange with the far-too-attractive Aussie Abbie Cornish.

Like Scott’s previous films, every scene is absolutely gorgeous as his director of photography beautifully captures the Provence landscape and really makes you feel as if you’re there. Another dimension is brought to the story with the movie’s enlightening observations on the French wine trade, creating a flipside of the coin seen in “Sideways,” even if the story and humor don’t flow nearly as freely.

As much as “A Good Year” tries to do its own thing, it sometimes veers toward the predictable in terms of where Max’s character arc is going. That shouldn’t stop anyone from enjoying this entertaining laid-back film, but it’s not something that will necessarily stick with you after seeing it.

The Bottom Line:
By changing directions, Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe have created a lighter comedy that’s far more entertaining than contemporary American romantic comedies. Certainly, fans of Crowe’s lighter moments in movies like “Cinderella Man” shouldn’t have trouble accepting him doing more humorous material, and fans of European cinema should appreciate what Scott was trying to do. Otherwise, it’s such a dramatic departure for both of them that it’s hard to slot into their respective filmographies.

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