Sour Grapes

Salt Lake City Weekly | November 3, 2006
In a directing career spanning nearly 40 years, Ridley Scott has done a little bit of everything. He moved from commercials to British television, then on to feature films. He has triumphed with historical epics like Gladiator, and re-defined both claustrophobic horror (Alien) and dystopic science-fiction (Blade Runner). His has been an oeuvre largely characterized by grim intensity, with nothing even remotely similar to the kind of sentimental comedy he attempts in A Good Year. And now we know why.

Look, it’s usually an admirable thing to find established artists stretching; the Beatles couldn’t have been blamed for never graduating from “Love Me Do” to “Eleanor Rigby.” But there are times when you watch someone with real talent fumbling so badly into a new direction that you almost want to avert your eyes. A Good Year proves clumsy in a way that you only see when an artist has been around so long that no one seems willing to admit that he has no clue what he’s doing.

It can’t be blamed on lack of familiarity with the material. Scott actually suggested the premise for author Peter Mayle’s book, about a cutthroat London banker named Max Skinner (Russell Crowe). At the height of his success, he discovers that he has inherited the Provençal estate winery from his beloved Uncle Henry (Albert Finney), with whom he shared boyhood summers. When he heads to France to check out the property he plans to sell immediately, he finds plenty of complications. The resident wine-maker, Duflot (Didier Bourdon), worries that he will lose his job. An American named Christie (Abbie Cornish) arrives claiming to be Henry’s illegitimate daughter. And a local café owner named Fanny (Marion Cotillard) captures Max’s fancy in a way he wasn’t expecting.

It’s all very rote and inoffensive in its “learning what’s really important in life” story arc, altered significantly from the book by screenwriter Marc Klein. He does have the good sense to abandon entirely a ridiculous sub-plot involving the international black market for wine, tightening the focus on the romance between Max and Fanny. Cue the golden-dappled lighting scheme, and you have one of those Under the Tuscan Sun formulaic charmers that simply wants you to bathe in its warm glow.

Unfortunately, Scott has cranked his “warm glow” lamp up to “supernova.” Flashbacks lurk around every turn, so gauzily photographed by Philippe LeSourd that it feels like watching a movie through dirty contact lenses. Apparently worried that simple sentimentality will not inspire enough good feeling in his audience, Scott then loads up on labored slapstick. A yappy dog pees on Max’s leg. Max falls into an empty swimming pool full of Manure. Max leaps up on a bed like a girl when he spies a scorpion in his bedroom. Max tries to endear himself to Fanny by pretending to be a waiter in her restaurant. It just keeps coming, and it’s all achingly unfunny.

What’s baffling about the aggressive whimsy is that it runs so contrary to what, in theory, A Good Year should be about. The Provençe to which Max escapes from his high-powered London life should be a peaceful retreat, a place that changes his perspective on the world. But there’s never a moment when the film takes Max’s point of view and slows down to take in the scenery. It’s frantic, even as it turns a French street scene into a twinkly, romantic rendezvous—a movie made by a guy who can’t stop tapping his foot.

It’s hard to hate a film like A Good Year actively, because it’s just pleasant enough in its sloppiness, treats us to some attractive people, and gets some entertaining moments out of Tom Hollander as Max’s real estate agent pal. Then you watch Russell Crowe looking faintly embarrassed to be walking around in a sweater, and you wonder if he regrets trusting the guy who treated him so well in Gladiator. Crowe is stretching a little, too, and it wasn’t exactly the smartest choice for him, either. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt one more time—unlike Ridley Scott, who manages to give country living all the serenity of a Keystone Kops short.


** (two stars out of four)

Starring: Russell Crowe, Marion Cotillard, Abbie Cornish

Directed by Ridley Scott

Rated PG-13

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