A Good Year

November 16th, 2006 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Directed by Ridley Scott

Starring Russell Crowe, Abbie Cornish, Albert Finney, Freddie Highmore, Marion Cotillard.

"If [Ridley Scott] directs me to jump off a cliff," Russell Crowe said recently in an interview, "I’ll go and jump off that cliff." A Good Year makes that much obvious. You couldn’t come across a more different movie than Gladiator, yet here are both principals in Peter (A Year in Provence author) Mayer’s love letter to rich downshifting Londoners.

Hatched years ago in a conversation between friends Scott and Mayer, A Good Life seems all wrong for both Scott and Crowe at first glance. The former is one of cinema’s strongmen, a director who commands budgets over the $100m mark from some of the richest producers in the world for epics of history, warfare and masculine swagger.

And Crowe is one of our hardest-working actors. Not in the number of movies he does, but the fact that he frequently pushes his abilities as a performer, seldom falling back on the goofy charm of a persona as most actors do. Russell Crowe in a comic rom-com sounds as feasible as Will Ferrell or Steve Carell in a searing socio-political thriller.

Crowe is Max, a ruthless bonds trader who’s slowly turned his back on the childhood that made him who he is, one of summers spent at the French vineyard of his wise and kindly Uncle Henry (Finney). Presented in flashbacks with Highmore as the young Max, Uncle Henry imparts his wisdom on everything from wine to life, unknowingly shaping Max’s life for years to come — including the success that disconnects him from his beloved Uncle in the pursuit of prestige and profit.

When he learns of Henry’s death after not speaking to his Uncle in years, Max travels to the vineyard estate with a view to a quick sale. There he predictably falls in love with a pretty waitress (Cotillard), the charm of the vineyard, the landscape, the estate staff he grew up with, the locals and a young American (Cornish) who claims to be Henry’s illegitimate daughter and who therefore may have claim to the title.

It’s a fantasy France — most of the women are about 25 and drop dead gorgeous, the roads all rambling vineyard scenery and the village rustic and beautiful. So what could go wrong in such a beautiful place where reconnecting with your past and falling in love is almost drifting on the air itself?

First, A Good Year needed a male lead with a little more… softness. For punching above his abilities in selecting roles, Crowe does more than pay lip service to challenging himself as an actor but he frequently falters because of it. With nothing here to go on but charm, you realise how charmless Crowe actually is. He shares almost no chemistry with love interest Cotillard and stumbles over the faux-comic moments that pepper the film.

Together with (American) screenwriter Marc Klein, it all comes off sounding less English and more Americans-trying-to-be-English, arbitrary uses of the word ‘bollocks’ sounding like it’s the only British swear word American filmmakers know — truly ironic considering the Australian star and British director.

And where to start with leading lady Marion Cottilard? As if a name straight out of a bad Bond parody — Fanny Chenal — isn’t bad enough, she plays second fiddle to Max’s sea change aspirations every step. After being set up as the girl he’ll never get — her heart cold to the advances of any man, she falls for his Hugh Grant-lite schtick after a single date.

Is A Good Year relevant? Isn’t the story of a corporate cutthroat falling from grace and being redeemed a fixture from the 1980s? Even if it does work, will you sympathise with a rich guy who decides to give up one dream life of wealth and privilege for another?

A Good Year could have been a great movie, and while the mood, tone and sentiment are all there on the screen, the only things wrong with the film may be Crowe and Scott themselves. In a parallel universe they made another world-beating swords and sandals epic, and audiences rewarded them for sticking to what they’re good at.


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