A light rose from Ridley Scott compared to the hefty cabernets he usually turns out, “A Good Year” is a divertissement, an excuse for the filmmakers and cast to enjoy a couple of months in Provence and for the audience, by proxy, to spend a couple of hours there. A simple repast consisting of sometimes strained slapsticky comedy, a sweet romance and a life lesson learned, this little picnic doesn’t amount to much but goes down easily enough to generate OK B.O. returns.
Story of a rapacious London bonds trader tempted to opt out of the fast lane for life at an inherited chateau is more than a bit self-referential for both Scott and the source book’s author, Peter Mayle. The two worked together in the advertising and commercials world 30 years ago, with Mayle eventually giving it up to write books, beginning with the massively successful “A Year in Provence” in 1991. Scott also has a home and vineyard in the area.
So when the allure of the simple life is expressed here, it is only on the most fantastic terms, with the best wine, food, views and women already in place for instantaneous consumption. As a real-life fantasy it’s hard to beat; as a film, it’s an agreeable slice of lifestyles-of-the-rich voyeurism.
After a brief prologue devoted to conceited British boy Max (Freddie Highmore) being indoctrinated in the finer points of wine by his life-lusting Uncle Henry (Albert Finney) at the latter’s estate in the south of France, Max (Russell Crowe) enters as an even more self-satisfied adult on the trading floor, finessing a fantastic profit in one session that raises the ire of his rivals.
Notified that his uncle has died and left him the chateau, he flies down to wrap up the paperwork to facilitate a quick sale of the property, which promises to net Max another small fortune. Heedless of the feelings of his uncle’s longtime winemaker Francis (Didier Bourdon) and the latter’s wife, Ludivine (Isabelle Candelier), Max cares about nothing but money and winning, and while in France relishes driving past a bunch of bicyclists and yelling gleefully at them “Lance Armstrong!”
Given that the estate’s little dog is named Tati and that clips from “M. Hulot’s Holiday” and “Mon Oncle” are glimpsed at one point, it’s safe to assume Scott admires the great French comic filmmaker Jacques Tati. Along those lines, Crowe takes quite a few pratfalls in the course of the film, including one into a waterless swimming pool with walls too high to climb up, a predicament that allows him to begin his sparring match with lovely local restaurant owner Fanny (Marion Cotillard), who’s sworn off men.
Rather than for its more rambunctious physicality, pic is often more appealing in its throwaway asides, such as the one in the pool when a filthy Max mincingly mutters the famous lines from “Lawrence of Arabia” about why Lawrence likes the desert: “It’s clean. I like it because it’s clean.”
A convenient job suspension keeps Max in Provence longer than planned, long enough for the place to cast its spell upon him. One surprise is the arrival of Christie (Abbie Cornish), a beautiful girl from Napa coming to meet her biological father — none other than the deceased Henry — for the first time. French laws allowing claims of illegitimate children throw the inheritance into question, while the mystery surrounding the source of a very pricey vin de garage, as opposed to the lousy stuff openly grown on the property, gives Max further pause.
But in a story like this, it can only be a woman who makes the blind man see the light. And so it is when Max and Fanny, two young but hard souls — who, they figure out, once met as children on the land — finally come together in an endearing breakthrough scene extremely well played by Crowe and Cotillard. For a moment, pic approaches a level of genuine intoxication.
His hair smoothed and straightened into something like a 1920s look, and outfitted with glasses much of the time, Crowe executes a lightweight change of pace with his charisma entirely intact, even if he still hasn’t mastered an English accent that fits comfortably with Finney’s or Highmore’s. There are moments when the enchanting Cotillard resembles a Gallic, dark-haired Reese Witherspoon, and Aussie thesp Cornish, in her first Hollywood film, continues her quick ascent with a perfect Yank accent and a nice note of observant reserve.
The setting could hardly be made to look less than glorious, and production standards are up to what one expects from a Scott picture. All the same, lensing is not as resplendent as it might have been; numerous shots sharing bright and dark areas aren’t well balanced, and faces are sometimes underlit. The soundtrack, fleshed out with an eclectic array of tunes, is lively.