He can deliver a knockout punch, command a ship of the line, or confound a corrupt Roman emperor while armed with little more than a handful of dust, but great Caesar’s ghost, Russell Crowe can’t do everything. In the tepid romantic comedy/travel brochure A Good Year, Crowe plays Hugh Grant — well, he plays one of those taken-for-Granted foppish Brits who start off insufferably cocky but end up redeemably charming through a series of delightfully self-deprecating comeuppances. And the result is not A Good Look for our Maximus. His idea of marketing what passes for his delightfully self-deprecating side involves, at one point, tumbling into an empty, sunken swimming pool with no escape ladder while a pretty lady smirks (in the days before she inevitably falls for him) above. Thud.
We are not entertained. His eyeglasses yuppie-horn-rimmed and his hair curlicued as if his hairdresser had used a Four Weddings and a Funeral head shot for reference, Crowe plays Max Skinner, a ruthless, wheeler-dealing London bond trader who inherits a French chateau and vineyard from his late uncle. (In flashback, Albert Finney rumbles and cavorts as the puckish bon vivant, instructing a receptive Freddie Highmore in gracious living and wine swirling as his young nephew, the mini Max.) And at first, Max is too type A to enjoy the bounty; in a bit of a cash-flow crunch, he wants to sell the joint ASAP. What, is Max the only guy in the English-speaking world who didn’t read Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence when the best-selling memoir came out back in 1990 and who didn’t afterward covet the former adman’s chateau-and-vineyard-owning, smug good fortune? Didn’t he read Toujours Provence, or Hotel Pastis: A Novel of Provence, or Encore Provence: New Adventures in the South of France, or A Good Year itself — all of them progressively less fresh Mayle fantasies, set in sun-kissed groves tended by wise, eccentric Gallic locals who do the hard work?
Apparently Max didn’t — although director Ridley Scott certainly did. (Not that he needed to; Crowe’s old Gladiator general owns his own chateau and vineyard in the region, not far from Mayle’s spread.) Of course, the slicked-up Londoner’s hustle begins to melt under the Provençal sun. Business dealings keep him stuck in French paradise longer than he bargained for, during which time he is treated with fermented chagrin by the estate’s winemaker (Didier Bourdon), meets a luscious local restaurant owner (French lovely Marion Cotillard, as the femme who witnesses his pool pratfall), and is visited by a golden California girl (Somersault’s succulent young Abbie Cornish, also on ample display soon in Candy) who claims kinship, too: The late, lusty uncle may have been the father she never met.
A Good Year (with a screenplay by Serendipity’s Marc Klein, based on Mayle’s 2004 book) argues for inarguably good things. It’s all for leisure and against stress, it’s pro-food, -wine, -women, and -vacation homes, and it’s opposed to thinking of Crowe only as a heavy with a flash temper, best suited to playing brawlers and brooders. (In a wink to past battles, Crowe’s Max does indeed scoop up a handful of southern French loam and roll it through his fingers.)
But the movie is out of sync with the times — a desultory entertainment rote even in its ideas of beauty, set in a place that by now has been overharvested as a holiday destination, about a greed-is-good character type that has become a cliché (and worse, a joke), played in a light, heterosexual-male comedy style that by now looks like something out of the 19th century and was already wearing thin in the early 1990s when getting off the career treadmill and stopping to smell the grapevines was considered something new and marvelous in a man. Even Hugh Grant isn’t doing the Hugh Grant shtick anymore, which makes Crowe’s dutiful stomping around on the way to sensual enlightenment all the more miscued.
I like the matchup of Scott and Crowe, two masters of masculine mise-en-scène who understand that nothing beats a big, dramatic (and commercially sound) swing of the bat, and whose aim is usually much better than this. So I’ll assume that this project was more of a recuperative project in the sunshine for tightly scheduled director and tightly wound star than a serious cinematic collaboration. I’ll write A Good Year off as nothing more than a bad harvest.