Max Skinner (Russell Crowe) is nothing short of a bonds-trading god, ruling Britain with his killer financial instincts and greed. Drinking in the success from his latest haul, Max is notified that his estranged uncle (Albert Finney) has died, leaving Max in charge of the French chateau and vineyards left behind. Putting aside his risk-taking career for a moment, Max visits the property, and is overwhelmed by its dilapidated state. Much to the displeasure of the caretakers, Max decides to sell the place, but as he spends more time among the grapes and the sunsets, his feelings about his own life and the potential of the estate change.
He's been a vengeful, brutal gladiator, a hot-tempered L.A. cop, and a mentally unhinged math wizard; but the one thing actor Russell Crowe has never been is funny.
"A Good Year" represents a bit of a cinematic vacation for both Crowe and his director, Ridley Scott. These men have kept busy over the last few years with projects that trafficked in paranoia, aggression, and heavy emotional mining. "Good Year" offers both talents a lightweight tale of personal salvation through the healing effects of wine country. "Year" is based on a novel by Peter Mayle, and hints at a depth that would seem irresistible to any filmmaker, yet Scott and Crowe can't make this material relax and match the story's intent.
While set in 2006, "Year" seems pulled from 1986, using the yuppie lifestyle of money and ambition to create the roadblock keeping Max from his sense of peace. As authentic as its depiction of a hard-charging stock shark might be, it smells of Gordon Gekko leftovers, accentuated by Max's optical choice of humongous Sally Jesse Raphael glasses.
Things do not improve when Max arrives in wine country. Here Scott disappoints with his wooby-like obsession with dim, cluttered lighting. There's no seduction of the French vineyard through Scott's eye; instead it's a cloudy, itchy place before it's overhauled by Max, and afterwards as well. Even with the golden ticket the material presents to him to try out a new visual palette, Scott doesn't budge from his previous efforts, and his slick, claustrophobic cinematography doesn't bring out the bliss of heavenly country life nearly as effectively as it should.
Scott also fumbles the narrative momentum by including too many of Max's literary adventures. "Year" comes dangerously close to episodic mush by trying to include too many characters and emotional speeds. The material runs the gamut of subplots, yet nothing seems to connect. "Year" is a messy picture when it extends beyond Max's expedition to his heart, made even more limp by some rather uninspired supporting work from actresses Marion Cotillard and Abbie Cornish as the two women in Max's new life.
As much respect I have for Crowe as a dramatic actor, the painful truth is, comedy just isn't his forte. There's no sliver of sunshine to Max, leaving him a dour character. Crowe seems trapped between his yearning to ape Charlie Chaplin with his overactive facial tics and pratfalls, and the stoic, hard-boiled-egg-in-throat presence that comes so naturally to him. Crowe is all wrong for Max, and when the character is caught in the mix of the past memories of his Uncle and his future dreams of a life in slow motion, it's difficult to read this crucial transition on his face.
Paced with a sputtery sense of timing, I kept waiting for "Good Year" to calm down and settle into known, but warmly realized elements. It never achieves this goal, and its antsy, cutesy spirit wears down the joy of the piece quickly.
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