Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"A Good Year," dir. Ridley Scott (Oklahoma Gazette)

“A Good Year” isn’t a very good film, but it seems a calculatedly good career choice for bad-boy Russell Crowe as an image-correcting vehicle. In it, he plays a bastard who finds his inner good guy through the love of a good woman, some good friends and a good glass of wine. That this transformation takes place in the Edenic glow of the softly golden sunlight bathing a vineyard in Provence, France, adds an almost sacred aura to this utterly earthbound story of redemption.

The Ridley Scott (“Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down”) film is based on Peter Mayle’s 2004 novel of the same name — one of at least 10 Mayle books celebrating the south of France where the British author, himself, found not only a new life but a new career as the best-selling chronicler of this magical place: Monsieur Mayle, c’est Provence.

The magic of place makes it to the screen in the cinematography, but the story is an old trick. Ruthless bond trader Max Skinner (Russell Crowe) is a man who shags all the beautiful women and screws all his fellow traders. When his lusty, earthy Uncle Henry (Albert Finney) dies, Skinner inherits his chateau and vineyard in Provence. Through a variety of lesson-teaching flashbacks to boyhood summers spent with Henry that are about as subtle as Annie Green Springs and, once he leaves gray, wet London for golden, dry Provence, a series of human interactions about as complex as Ripple, Skinner becomes a better man. We know this primarily because he shucks his perfectly fitted bespoke charcoal suit and slips into light, loose linen in soft hues. He still shags the beauties and screws the bondies, but with better humor and more sincerity.

“A Good Year” falls into a group of films easy to write about for a specific reason: A critic cannot even inadvertently introduce spoilers into her reviews because these films have no surprises to give away. It has, shall we say, a deep bouquet of cliché.
As Skinner, Crowe has little charm. His attempts to show that beneath the bespoke is a decent, somewhat goofy guy come across as signals of the plot set-up rather than signs of a truly complex man.

Finney suffices as the wise old uncle, but he doesn’t have a lot to work with. Even a great actor seems less so when decanting clichéd words of wisdom. The women who help Skinner find his inner vintner make up an international bevy of beauties but provide little depth: Australian Abbie Cornish as American Christie, who may be Max’s cousin; French Marion Cotillard as Fanny Chantal, a childhood playmate who planted the seeds of redemption she now nurtures; and Italian Valeria Bruni Tedeshi as the notaire handling the legalities of the inheritance.

The film’s only two performances with legs are those of Freddie Highmore (“Neverland”) as young Max and Archie Panjabi (“A Constant Gardner,” “Bend it Like Beckham”) as Gemma, Max’s whipsmart assistant.

You’ll not find much veritas in this film about vino: Regrettably, this bottle is corked.


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