Watching "A Good Year" is like spending two hours with someone who is tiresome but who thinks you should find him exceedingly charming. "Aren't I droll?" he seems to say with his smug smile and his semi-amusing quips. "Don't you think I'm ever-so-pleasant?" But all you want to do is smack him.
Russell Crowe's off-screen behavior makes a lot of people want to smack him, but his reputation doesn't even figure in to the botched Guy Learns What's Really Important comedy that is "A Good Year." The character of Max Skinner -- a rich London stockbroker who's as much a rogue on the trading floor as he is with the ladies -- would be insufferable no matter who played him. He's a pompous, wine-swilling, sweater-vest-wearing, falsely humble fake-stutterer. He's Hugh Grant, if Hugh Grant were a humorless, black-souled golem.
Based on the novel by Peter Mayle and adapted by Marc Klein ("Serendipity"), "A Good Year" tells us of Max Skinner's old Uncle Henry (Albert Finney), a winemaker and gadabout living on a vineyard in Provence, France. The two had a close relationship when Max was young. Now Henry has died and left the estate to Max, who spends his days terrorizing London's economic community with his barely legal stock-trading techniques. Max figures to sell the old place and get it off his hands, but when he visits it, the memories come flooding back.
The memories are the film's highlights, actually. The young Max is played by Freddie Highmore (already a star from his performances in "Finding Neverland" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"), and Albert Finney gives Uncle Henry infectious life and energy. He's exactly as charming as the rest of the movie thinks it is.
While in Provence getting the house ready for sale, Max develops a crush on a local girl named, improbably, Fanny Chenal (Marion Cotillard), a waitress at a local bistro. (In one of the film's more aggressively cute sequences, Max dons an apron and helps Fanny wait tables during a busy dinner rush!) He also meets Christie Roberts (Abbie Cornish), a young American woman who might have a claim of ownership to the property.
The film's director is Crowe's old "Gladiator" pal Ridley Scott, whose output ("Alien," "Thelma & Louise," "Hannibal") is generally of a more action-oriented nature. Scott's lack of experience with light comedies shines brightly in "A Good Year": The parts that are supposed to be funny look like they were executed by people who don't know how to be funny. A dog pees on a man's leg; a man falls face-first into a pile of manure; a careless driver accidentally runs a bicyclist off a road -- this is what passes for mirth around here.
The images of the French countryside are gorgeous, though. More Albert Finney and Freddie Highmore, more pretty pictures of French places, less Russell Crowe, that's what I say.