Ridley Scott’s movies are usually big action flicks featuring he-man heroes (see “Gladiator”), though there have been a few exceptions over the years. None of them, though, has been quite so unlike his norm as this adaptation of Peter Mayle’s novel about a hard-driving London bond trader who goes to the wine country of Provence to dispose of a vineyard left him by his late uncle and there finds romance and a yen for a simpler, more fulfilling life. “A Good Year” is like “Under the Tuscan Sun” with a male protagonist. It’s a guy version of a chick flick, and like regular chick flicks, it’s pretty sappy stuff, though with the lovely locations and Philippe Le Sourd’s sumptuous cinematography, it’s very pretty.
It also showcases what’s probably the worst performance of his career by Russell Crowe as Max Skinner, a ruthless shark in the business world whose visit to the estate of his departed Uncle Henry (Albert Finney, relishing the opportunity to be lovably cranky) rekindles memories–shown, of course, via flashbacks in which he’s played as a boy by Freddie Highmore–of the wonderful summers he spent there with the old coot. He initially intends to sell off the place, much to the distress of his uncle’s wine-maker Francis Duflot (Didier Bourdon) and his wife Ludivine (Isabelle Candelier). But especially after he meets local restaurateur Fanny Chenal (Marion Cotillard)–in one of those cute mishaps that start off their relationship in hostility and then has it move gradually into affection–he begins to have second thoughts, something that his worldly, cynical best friend and lawyer, Charlie (Tom Hollander), can’t understand until he visits the place and also falls under its spell.
Also on hand is Christie Roberts (Abbie Cornish), an American lass who shows up claiming to be Henry’s illegitimate daughter. Will Max, true to cut-throat form, rob her of her rightful inheritance or do the right thing by the girl? (There’s also a pervasive subplot about a particularly prized local wine from some unknown source, but unless I dozed through something, that plot thread is never tied up.)
There’s a prefabricated feel to all of this; to use terminology oenologists might favor, “A Good Year” comes across like the cinematic equivalent of wine-in-a-box rather than a truly fine vintage. There’s never the slightest question of how things are going to turn out, and the script offers too few variations on the formula to make it tasty; and ultimately the picture expires from a terminal case of the cutes. Nor does the cast help matters. Crowe’s performance is a cacophony of tics, feints, smirks and hesitations, all designed, one supposes, to be charming but succeeding only in being incessantly overripe and annoying. In its comic vehemence the turn is reminiscent of Cary Grant’s worst showing on film–his similarly overwrought performance in “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944). Charm has to be natural and unforced; here Crowe, like Grant, tries much too hard, and the result is strenuous and grating. Finney is also larger than life, but he can get away with it, while Cotillard and Bourdon (as well as Rafe Spall, Archie Panjabi and Kenneth Cranham as colleagues of Max’s back in London) tend to overdo things, too. But contrast Cornish is too recessive. But some moderate compensation is provided by Hollander, whose laid-back manner is an oasis of comic understatement in a climate more marked by scenery-chewing ostentation. One other point in its favor is that the movie drops a small, aggressive dog owned by Francis after a few early appearances. The mutt threatens to become a regular “reaction-shot pooch,” and its abrupt departure from the action is one of the small mercies in a picture that otherwise sticks pretty close to form.
Still, there are those locations, which are extraordinarily lovely. And the photography, which captures them beautifully. For some that may be enough to make “A Good Year” an intoxicating brew. From this quarter, though, the view is that it’s pretty flat and unpalatable.