A Good Year has one of the best movie scenes I’ve witnessed all year. London stock trader Max Skinner (Russell Crowe) is trying to help his team get a leg up on their competition at another trading firm. He artificially drives up the price of a stock, then immediately dumps it just as his competitors start buying. A moment later, as the price falls through the floor, he starts buying them up again for next-to-nothing prices. In the process, he earns his company $77 million in profits. Director Ridley Scott stages the scene with all the tension of an action picture, and Crowe clearly relishes playing the arrogant Skinner. Like Sherman McCoy in Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” the trader clearly fancies himself a Master of the Universe.
Unfortunately, the high point of A Good Year comes in the first five minutes. What follows is pleasant, amiable, and completely familiar. This is yet another story about a self-absorbed fast-tracker who learns to relinquish his/her avaricious ways after discovering the joys of “the simple life.” You know exactly where the film is going almost as soon as the opening credits finish, and the rest of the time is spent waiting for the story to crawl to its predictable conclusion.
Skinner is temporarily suspended from his job while an ethics investigation is conducted. At the same time, he heads to France, where his recently deceased uncle Henry (Albert Finney, appearing in flashbacks) has left him a small chateau and vineyard. Skinner roams around the place, frequently remembering his magical childhood spent there with Henry. (Freddie Highmore plays Max as a child.) It was here that he learned many a life lesson - some practical, others of which he obviously distorted along the way.
Of course, a power player like Skinner wants to fix the place up just enough to sell it for a fortune. Two things stand in his way. One is Francis Duflot, the guy who has tended the vines for decades, feels passionately about them, and doesn’t want to let them go. The other is Christie Roberts (Abbie Cornish), a young American girl who claims to be the long lost daughter of Henry. She, not so coincidentally, has a passion for winemaking. Of course, Skinner also has to meet an exotic beauty – in this case, Marion Cotillard as café owner Fanny Chenal – who tempts him to stay in France rather than returning to his trading job and flashy lifestyle.
Watching A Good Year, it is impossible not to think of other, similar films. I kept remembering Under the Tuscan Sun, in which divorcee Diane Lane ran off to an Italian villa, fell in love with an exotic local, and ultimately decided to abandon her previous way of life. Some of these movies are good, others not so much. The problem is that human nature rarely works this way. Cocky stock traders aren’t typically seduced by grapes, and rustic chateaus, and country life. They get into their line of work because power and money are priorities. This is not to say that such a person couldn’t have a change of heart, but it would probably take something more (like, say, an ethical crisis at the workplace or a debilitating illness) to open their eyes a little. Hollywood regularly churns out one of these feel-good comedies about living simply. Just once, I’d like to see one where the lead character says, “You know, I was happier back in my big apartment with my high-paying job and my plasma TV. I’m going home.”
It doesn’t help that the comedy isn’t really all that funny. Ridley Scott is a great filmmaker, but he’s not known for comedy. Russell Crowe – great actor, not known for comedy. During the humorous scenes, you can see the two struggling for laughs. The film occasionally takes an over-the-top tone, as though Scott and Crowe don’t realize that you can be subtle and funny simultaneously. There’s even a scene where a lost Skinner drives his little car around in a circle…and Scott speeds up the action. It starts to resemble a Benny Hill sketch or something out of National Lampoon’s Vacation.
If it sounds like I had a miserable time, I should clarify that I didn’t. The truth is that, multiple flaws aside, I did sort of like this film. I’m going to use a word I hate only because no other word does the trick: A Good Year has a jaunty feel that made it fairly entertaining to sit through. You can tell that everyone involved had a good time running around France making the thing, and some of that comes off the screen. The cinematography is breathtaking, turning the chateau into a character in and of itself. The flashbacks with Albert Finney and Freddie Highmore are very well done, and Crowe (while not a natural comedian), nails the thawing self-absorption of the character. Plus, let’s face it – aren’t most of us suckers for a breezy piece of movie fluff set in a foreign locale?
I just wish that there were something more substantive here. The course A Good Year takes feels like it’s on rails: there’s only one possible destination and only one way to get there. There’s a lot to enjoy on the fringes, but the movie’s plot has, regrettably, not aged to perfection.
( 1/2 out of four)
A Good Year is rated PG-13 for language and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: A Good Year
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