Good Year, A: Ridley Scott Reteams with Russell Crowe

With his new, lighter romantic fare,” A Good Year,” Ridley Scott, better known for such “macho” films as “Hannibal,” Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down,” changes pace, entering into the turf of Lasse Hallstrom and his humanist films about Life’s Big Lessons.

It may be Scott’s first conscious effort at making a date movie, though one aiming at a more mature (thritysomething) crowd. Shot in the spectacular French region of Provence and dealing with win, “Good Year” may be considered the male equivalent of Diane Lane’s 2003 romantic fable, “Under the Tuscan Sun,” shot in the gorgeous Italian region. While the genders are reversed, the premise–the culture collision–and crowd-pleasing nature are quite similar. (see below).

It’s a predictable yarn, in which several subplots are sitcom-like, almost every issue is neatly wrapped up or resolved. Harsh critics will find plenty to complain about: Lack of genuine dramatic conflict, familiar character development, and so on. But it’s pleasant enough to sit through for reasons explained below.

Russell Crow re-teams with Scott after their successful collaboration on the Oscar-winning “Gladiator.” Crowe plays London banker Max Skinner, a ruthless, cocky businessman who built an empire of greed trading bonds. Max only cares for matters which increase his net worth, so when he hears of the passing of his estranged Uncle Henry (Albert Finney), he is most keen to discover the value of the wine estate he’s poised to inherit. Max was Henry’s closest blood relative, so even though it’s been nearly ten years since they last visited, Max is the sole beneficiary.

Initially irritated that he must voyage out into the French countryside to assess La Siroque,” Max is eventually put in the right frame of mind by a barrage of cheery flashbacks that remind him of the good ol’ times he spent with Uncle Henry.

It’s Henry who taught young Max (played by Freddie Highmore of “Finding Neverland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” fame) how to read people, imparting wisdom that would eventually make this protg callously independent. We witness Max as a nascent rotten scoundrel cheating during chess and throwing temper tantrums when he lost. The flashbacks might reek of hackneyed but Scott introduces them well, as older Max first hears ghost sounds before the antique hallucinations kick-in.

As Max is bent on selling the chateau, he works with longtime caretaker Francis Duflot and his wife Ludivine, to fix up the place, even though they’d be devastated to leave their home. Other complications include the fact that the vineyard wine is terrible and the arrival of an illegitimate daughter who could be the true beneficiary. A love interest in the form of a long-lost childhood friend also comes in to pull on Max’s heartstrings.

Good Year, based on the novel A Year in Provence by Peter Maylle, is not a major film; it’s too obvious and conventional. But it’s pleasant enough to watch, even if it hits you over the head with its facile moralizing about the joys of country life versus the cruel Big City life.

It also offers a cross-cultural adult romance between Max and Fanny (Marion Cotillard (who appeared in Big Fish and Very Long Engagement), a French woman whose cynical exterior is soon melted by the Englishmans charisma.

In between theres a subplot involving a young American (the brilliant Aussie actress Abbie Cornish), who may or may not be Henrys unacknowledged daughter.

We witness with patience the predictable sparring between Max and the caretaker of Henrys estate, who lambastes him for betraying his uncles wishes. And we are rewarded by the well-acted flashbacks with the eccentric Uncle Henry and the young, uncertain Max, which have more substance than the contemporary yarn.

One major change from the novel is the depiction of Uncle Henry, who is only referred to in the novel. Scott and scripter Klein decided to depict the character in flashbacks, which, allows us to see the grooming of Max as a child, which pays off as the story unfolds.

These flashbacks emphasize the films principal theme that as long as people are in your heart, they never die. “Good Year” toys with the metaphor of reincarnation, not necessarily from the dead to the living, but having the living dead, like Max, become revitalized from his Provence experience.

Max has had a fortunate childhood in that he had this wonderful bon vivant uncle who put all the information in him that he needed in order to become a good bloke. But, he’s taken his uncle’s advice on competition and edge and made it his life’s mantra, to the point where competition isn’t really any fun for him anymore.

There’s a Provenal saying that you don’t own the chateau; the chateau owns you. From the time that Max gets there, events conspire to keep him here. It’s another variation of the fish-out-of-water/coming-of-age adult comedy with humanist realism.

The stunning Provence landscape helps tolerate the various shortcomings of “Good Year.” Provence’s main allure is that the area has three hundred days of sunshine a year, stunning scenery, remarkably unspoiled countryside, and extraordinary light, with bright colors of blue, green, and oranges. The peculiar light and pacing impose a certain rhythm on the narrative, not always for the better.

Ridley Scotts smooth and slick, if also, obvious direction compensate up to a point for the lack of real drama or the lack of terribly interesting characters; some are downright bland.

The title may be too obvious in referring to the life of Max, who comes to Provence, reconnects with the memory of his uncle and the lessons that his uncle had imparted to him, which opens his heart and changes his life.

The “plausibles,” as Hitchcock used to label them, would cast serious doubt over the credibility of Max’s radical transformation, which is actually a moral rebirth. Won’t he be more likely to sell the estate for a big profit and go back to London and resume his old ways

Crowe says that he has enjoyed a “really good rhythm” with Scott, and that both wanted to do something entirely different from Gladiator.” They certainly have: “Good Year” is a feel-good movie, even if the results are mixed.

Films of Similar Interest

In many movies, Italy is used as the place where career-oriented, uptight urbanites, usually British or American, go to relax and and rediscover the “small joys” of life.

A Room With a View (1986)

James Ivory’ Oscar-winning adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel about British mores and manners depicts the romantic and sexual awakening of a young woman (played by Helena Bonham Carter) when she takes a trip to Florence, Italy.

Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)

In Audrey Welles’ loose adaptation of Frances Mayes’ best-selling memoirs, Diane Lane plays an American divorcee, still depressed by the collapse of her marriage, who impulsively buys a house in the Tuscan region and settles there. In the process, she falls in love with a local (played by Raoul Bova).