November 13, 2006

A Good Year

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In one scene in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, Max Skinner, played by Russell Crowe, steps precariously onto a rusty old diving board above an abandoned
pool filled with cow manure in order to get a picture of a house. Of course, the board snaps and Max is face-down in cow feces. Unable to scramble up the sides of the deep pool, Max is delivered from his predicament when the water faucets are suddenly turned on. Oh yes, before the audience can scream “Oh no!,” Russell Crowe is swimming in shit.

This slapstick shtick comes dangerously close to serving as a strained metaphor for the movie. No, I don’t believe that A Good Year is shit — but it comes close, and, well, I couldn’t resist using that strained metaphor. But let me stretch it just a wee bit further — while you may smell shit while watching A Good Year, you can still enjoy it if you just plug your nose. No, that won’t do. A Good Year may resemble shit, but…OK, enough, I know, I’m sorry.

Max Skinner is a hoity-toity investment banker in London who refers to his employees as “lab rats.” He’s wildly successful because he’s ruthless, doesn’t take vacations and leaves no room in his life for personal affections. He leads the libertine lifestyle, which means that he puts way too much confidence in himself and not enough in others, leaving his happiness at the wayside.

When Max’s Uncle Henry (Albert Finney) dies without leaving a will, Max — his sole surviving relative — is suddenly the new owner of his uncle’s beautiful chateau and winery in Provence, France. Young Max (Freddie Highmore) had spent his childhood summers there, and Uncle Henry had served as a parent to the boy, who lost his parents when he was very little. All of the happy times he had spent at the chateau have been forgotten, however, and Max quickly jumps on the chance to fly out to Provence to evaluate the chateau, give it a quick fixing-up and sell it.

Of course, his visit to the chateau activates those dormant childhood memories, perhaps the only happy ones he’s ever known. The bucolic countryside, the French charm, the old housekeepers and a beautiful young waitress in the local town named Fanny (Marion Cotillard) all prove to be a powerful attraction for Max. Matters become even more complicated with the arrival of Christie (Abbie Cornish), an American who claims to be Henry’s daughter. Will Max still sell the chateau and in the process forsake Fanny’s love, give the housekeepers the boot and deny Christie her inheritance in order to make a cool profit and move back to London?

You know the answer. Indeed, A Good Year makes no pretense about what type of film it is, and yet it is all pretense. And therein lies the rub — the film’s romantic gloss is what prevents it from being a great movie and what makes it a good one.

A Good Year is a great departure for both star Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott. Once you see Crowe flinching from a scorpion on the ground, jump up on the bed and scream, you’ll know you’re not in Kansas anymore. Still, it is a testament to Crowe’s skills as an actor that he can pull off this role, and despite my not wanting to believe it, Crowe is believable as Max Skinner. Thematically, the movie is also a creative digression for Scott. Theatrically, however, there’s little difference between this movie and, say, Gladiator — the production values are top-notch, and this is a gorgeously shot and located film.

Too gorgeous. The film tries too hard in everything it does and looks for charm in all the wrong places. It relies on situational comedy instead of wit, overwrought caricatures instead of subtle characterization and carefully-constructed images instead of loose imagery. It overshoots insightful cultural commentary and gives us an ending which only Hollywood can deliver.

Still, there is a lot of joy to A Good Year. The scenes between young Max and Uncle Henry are touching, and all the performances are good. There may be a certain clumsiness to A Good Year, but at least it’s sincere, which is something that can’t be said of very many films today.