Good Year, A (United States, 2006)
The desire for familiarity in movies can lead to sequels and re-makes, but that doesn't always have to be the case. It can also mean the use of storyline everyone sitting in the theater knows. A Good Year is a respectable retelling of the "back to nature" narrative, in which a selfish individual becomes seduced and saved by a pastoral setting and a pretty woman who lives there. Sound familiar? Although there's nothing surprising in Ridley Scott's version, gorgeous photography and strong acting keep the formula from becoming stale. For those who don't mind pictures that fall into predictable rhythms, A Good Year represents a pleasant diversion.
Scott is a director who feels equally at home filming epics and smaller character-based dramas. A Good Year is an example of the latter. After the disappointment of Kingdom of Heaven (which was re-edited into something far more powerful on DVD: Kingdom of Heaven: Director's Cut), Scott wanted something lighter - an easy shoot in an idyllic location. The result is a mix of Sideways' man-meets-wine infatuation and the Diane Lane endeavor, Under the Tuscan Sun. There's also a romance between a big city foreigner and a local girl that has been done more times than I can count. At least there's some originality in the way they meet, as well as a cautionary note about standing on diving boards extending over empty swimming pools.
Max Skinner (Russell Crowe) is a financial whiz based in London. He's a self-proclaimed "greedy bastard," but that may be giving him too much credit for showing traits ascribed to human beings. His specialty is making money by screwing over others. In fact, therein lies his only real talent. Take away his high-pressure world, and he's lost. One day, he receives word that his once-beloved uncle Henry (Albert Finney) has popped the cork on his final bottle of wine. Because there is no will, Max, as his closest living relative, inherits his entire French estate, which includes a dilapidated villa and a huge vineyard. Max's intention is to unload it as quickly as possible for the best price he can get, so he travels to France to put things in order. There, assailed by memories of summers past (cue the flashbacks) and beguiled by the beauty of feisty Fanny (Marion Cotillard), he begins to lose his focus. Enter Kristy (Australian Abbie Cornish, doing a flawless American accent), Henry's illegitimate daughter, whose appearance introduces a new wrinkle - not only about the future of the vineyard but about Max's standing as a man with no family.
Russell Crowe's bad-boy reputation serves him well in establishing Max as a jerk. The transformation to a younger version of Henry is believable because it happens gradually. (One could argue that making this statement gives away something about the trajectory of the plot, but is there really any doubt?) There's a connection between Crowe and co-star Marion Cotillard, allowing us to accept this relationship. Their scenes together are some of the best in the movie. Albert Finney is in top form in the small but crucial role of Max's childhood mentor, whose lessons haven't been forgotten, just buried.
As with all films that are ultimately about redemption, the protagonist must first be established as someone in need of saving, then as someone worth saving. Scott accomplishes the first aim with the scenes of Max in London, coldly driving down the price of a stock by selling then buying when it's at the bottom. The second objective is achieved via the sun-dappled flashbacks. Redemption comes from two sources: the love of the land and the love of a woman. It's nice to know that, even in a movie that fits the formula to a "T", Scott can get us to care about the characters and forget (if only momentarily) that we know how everything is going to turn out.
Good Year, A (United States, 2006)
Cast: Russell Crowe, Albert Finney, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hollander, Abbie Cornish, Didier Bourdon
Screenplay: Marc Klein, based on the book by Peter Mayle
Cinematography: Philippe Le Sourd
Music: Marc Streitenfeld
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox