Russell Crowe should beat himself up for making A Good Year, and director Ridley Scott should do the same. Why, pray tell, have the star and director of Gladiator gone soft and made a movie about an avaricious middle-aged man who finds himself--and love--in a remote French countryside?
Don't tell me about pushing limits and expanding as artists. If they were really interested in that, they'd make a musical. Instead, they settle for something in between an action movie and musical: a melodrama that fails to develop any character worth caring about, and is so enamored with the beauty of the countryside that it alone becomes the movie's biggest redeeming virtue.
Crowe plays Max Skinner, a London bonds trader who takes just as much joy in making money as he does in drawing the ire of his rivals (he's the British version of Gordon Gekko). Flashbacks attempt to humanize Max (played as a child by Freddie Highmore) as a young man in need of guidance after the death of his parents. The boy finds many pearls of wisdom and learns quite a lot about wine from his Uncle Henry (Albert Finney), whom Max often joined at his chateau in the south of France.
These earnest scenes with Finney playing the sage mentor do not, however, change the fact that Max is a greedy and unlikable womanizer in the present. He soon learns that Uncle Henry has died and left him the luxurious estate and all that comes with it, including a vineyard and the two people who have kept it running all these years, winemaker Francis Duflot (Didier Bourdon) and his wife, Ludivine (Isabelle Candelier). Max's intention is to sell the property, but he gets sidetracked when he falls for a local waitress named Fanny (the radiant Marion Cotillard), learns Uncle Henry may have had an illegitimate daughter (Abbie Cornish), and then--big surprise--living in France begins to grow on him
Crowe is indisputably one of the most talented actors working today, but the script by Mark Klein (based on the Peter Mayle book) isn't fair to him as there's not one single moment in which Max acts selflessly. Even when he helps Fanny during a busy night at the restaurant it's clearly because he wants to get in her good graces, not because he genuinely wants to help her.
The most recent female equivalent to this film, Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) with Diane Lane, worked because Lane's character had to leave everything behind when she went abroad, and we rooted for her because she was sympathetic and modest. But Crowe's Max is none of these things, and in fact seems perfectly happy with the life he's leading. The audience is therefore expected to cheer for a man who doesn't necessarily need cheering for and worse, doesn't deserve it.
This is at least partially to blame on Ridley Scott, who's clearly more comfortable during the up-tempo, high-tech scenes in London than he is in the scenic countryside, giving the film an even more distinct fish-out-of-water vibe than it needs. The distant past (Kingdom of Heaven), troubled future (Blade Runner) and stories of crime and rebellion (Thelma and Louise) are what he does well and should stick to, and spare us the scenery-soaked melodrama that is a clear waste of his time and ours.
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