Movie review: 'A Good Year'

EntertainmentMoviesFreddie HighmoreRussell CroweAlbert FinneyRidley Scott

2 stars (out of four)

When Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe teamed up for "Gladiator," the results were, by any measure, impressive: epic sword fights, blood-thirsty lions and five Oscars. Rest assured none of these elements will be in any way attached to their latest endeavor, the unbearably sweet and emotionally lifeless "A Good Year."

Based on Peter Mayle's novel of the same name, the film follows Max (Crowe), a ruthless London stockbroker whose Gordon Gekko-like propensity for making morally dubious trades masks, one assumes from the outset, an inner softy. We know this because when his beloved uncle Henry (played with gusto by Albert Finney) dies, Max spends a lot of time gazing wistfully into space, recalling blissful summers spent at the family vineyard in Provence.

Summoned to the south of France to resolve Henry's affairs, Max encounters softly lit memories, lush vineyards and an unusually high number of genetically blessed women. Since this is a male fantasy, we won't begrudge Max his wandering eye, but his too-easy transition from prickly pear to overripe peach is tougher to forgive.

Certain locales in southern Europe are famous for turning hard-bitten pragmatists into romantic fools--the magic struck Colin Firth in "Love, Actually," Diane Lane in "Under the Tuscan Sun," Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday" and Mayle himself in "A Year in Provence." This is only a sampling of the genre, which can only mean one thing: We've seen it all before. So perhaps it's no surprise that you can see "A Good Year's" plot twists and clunker of an ending from a mile away.

There are pleasures, however fleeting, to be found despite the movie's smugness. Provence is, of course, jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and Scott uses his locations to great effect, panning the vineyards slowly, almost lovingly, and juxtaposing the erotic earthiness of the French countryside with the cold gray steel of London. Scenes between Finney and Freddie Highmore ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") as the young Max are top-notch, Archie Panjabi plays Max's saucy assistant with good-humored scorn, and French film mainstay Isabelle Candalier has great fun with her role as a longtime fixture at the vineyard.

Crowe is a strange choice for the role of Max, who falls passionately in love as the movie progresses, not only with the French way of life, but also with a comely local (Marion Cotillard) whose biting sarcasm and general emotional unavailability captures his heart. The actor, who demonstrated a magnificent talent for portraying sympathetic, even heartbreaking protagonists in "The Insider" and "A Beautiful Mind," is far less skilled at lighthearted romance. Clearly doing his best to counter reports of his now legendary temper, Crowe gamely smiles and gazes vaguely lovingly at his paramour, but can't quite sell it; he looks like a man who's trying, despite his best instincts, to ram his feet into shoes that don't fit. (Given Crowe's outburst last year in a New York hotel, it's impossible not to cringe as Max steps up to a concierge desk.)

Scott, who is best known for his action movies ("Black Hawk Down," "G.I. Jane," "Alien"), likewise seems ill suited to direct a romantic comedy. The plot, meandering at best, is further slowed by an underdeveloped story line involving an American woman (Abbie Cornish, rumored to have played a major role in the recent Reese Witherspoon/Ryan Phillippe separation) staking a claim on Henry's legacy, and by unnecessary and largely unresolved discussions about the vineyard's grapes, soil and wine output.

Despite the occasional seductive moment, "A Good Year" disappoints. The film, for all its pretensions of revelatory, life-altering enlightenment, is actually about as deep as a wading pool, as substantive as cotton candy.

jreaves@tribune.com

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'A Good Year'

Directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by Marc Klein and Peter Mayle; photographed by Phillipe Le Sourd; edited by Dody Dorn; music by Marc Streitenfeld; production design by Sonja Klaus; produced by Scott. A Fox 2000 Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:57. MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for language and some sexual content).

Young Max - Freddie Highmore

Uncle Henry - Albert Finney

Max - Russell Crowe

Francis Duflot - Didier Bourdon

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