Maybe not such a good 'Year'

Times Staff Writer

Figuring out why director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe were happy as can be to make "A Good Year" is not difficult. What's harder to come up with are compelling reasons to see it.

Director Scott not only owns a vineyard in the gorgeous Luberon region of Provence, where "A Good Year" is set, he is a good friend of Peter Mayle, who also lives in Provence and wrote the novel the film is based on. More than that, Scott gave Mayle the idea for the book. "This shoot," the director says, "was one of my most pleasant experiences."

Crowe, who got to live in the area for two months, says, "I loved waking up in Provence." Also not complaining was screenwriter Marc Klein, who, according to the press notes, spent "almost a year researching the region and the wines." Not exactly the assignment from hell.

No one is begrudging these hard-working movie-land professionals some time in the sun. It would've been nice, however, if more of the pleasure they experienced translated onto the movie screen, but little of it does. Though "A Good Year" is set in French wine country, it's best described as small beer. The scenery may be attractive and the cast likewise, but something vital is missing in this all-too-leisurely film, just as there is in the overly hectic life of protagonist Max Skinner, played by Crowe.

Our Max is a London investment banker, a master of the universe who manipulates markets and tells his minions, "We're not here for the dental plan." He's an emotionless, self-satisfied moneymaking machine who is about to find out that even mountains of cash can't always buy you what you need.

That's right, "A Good Year" is one of those ever-popular movies in which impossibly rich people, clueless about what really matters, turn out to be incapable of enjoying the simple things in life. As if.

Undeterred by his status as a cliche, Max is unmoved by a letter telling him that his favorite Uncle Henry has died and left him the chateau and vineyard in the midst of glorious Provence, where he spent summers as a boy. Max decides to go over and have a quick look before selling the place and making a killing.

This cold plan notwithstanding, a series of flashbacks to our hero as a child ("Finding Neverland's" Freddie Highmore) tells us that Max had more of a connection to Uncle Henry (Albert Finney at his most garrulous) than he wants to admit. Once Max arrives at the La Siroque vineyard and reconnects with its cranky winemaker Francis (Didier Bourdon) and his coquettish wife, Ludivine (Isabelle Candelier), the memories of golden childhood moments gradually come flooding back.

If this isn't conventional enough, Max has a predictable cute-meet with the most beautiful woman in town, the lovely Fanny Chenal (Marion Cotillard, Cesar winner for "A Very Long Engagement"), nearly running her down on her bicycle while he's reading a map as he drives his car. Despite this promising beginning, however, Max is soon informed that "it is rumored she will let no man near her heart." Quelle dommage!

Also a problem is that the wine La Siroque produces appears to be dreadful, hampering that much desired sale. An additional obstacle is the sudden appearance of a fetching young woman-oenophile from California (Australia's Abbie Cornish) who claims to be Uncle Henry's illegitimate daughter and is saddled with such dreadful lines as, "Back in Napa we're known to gargle and spit on occasion."

The fact that we know exactly what will happen to Max from the moment he appears on screen is not what's wrong with "A Good Year." After all, we go to films like this precisely because the satisfaction of emotional certainty is what we're looking for.

What we're not looking for is a romantic comedy made by individuals with no special feeling for the genre who stretch a half hour's worth of story to nearly two hours. Russell Crowe is invariably involving on screen, and Ridley Scott is a splendid director when the material is right. No film they collaborate on will be devoid of interest, but "A Good Year" almost is. If Scott was, in his own words, "looking for an excuse to come back to France to shoot a film," it's a pity he didn't hold out for a project that would please audiences as well as himself.


'A Good Year'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for language and some sexual content

A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox 2000 presentation. Director-producer Ridley Scott. Screenplay Marc Klein. Based on the book by Peter Mayle. Director of photography Philippe Le Sourd. Editor Dody Dorn. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.

In general release.

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