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(2006) (Russell Crowe, Marion Cotillard) (PG-13)

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Dramedy: A ruthless London bond trader finds his life upended when he inherits his uncle's French vineyard and then falls for a local restaurateur.
Max Skinner (RUSSELL CROWE) is a ruthless, London based bond trader who's very good at what he does, manipulating the market -- with the aide of his assistant Gemma (ARCHIE PANJABI) -- in order to make himself and his firm lots of money. But with his latest success comes the sad news that his Uncle Henry (ALBERT FINNEY) has passed away. As a boy (FREDDIE HIGHMORE), Max spent plenty of time with Henry at his chateau and vineyard in Provence, but they grew apart once Max got busy with his adult life. Being his uncle's closest blood relative, Max learns he's inherited the place, a point his best friend and savvy realtor Charlie Willis (TOM HOLLANDER) informs him could result in a tidy profit.

When Max travels there, however, he finds the place rundown despite Henry's longtime vigneron, Francis Duflot (DIDIER BOURDON), still tending to the grapes, while his wife, Ludivine (ISABELLE CANDELIER), still cares for the manor. Francis doesn't want him to sell the place, but Max thinks that with enough time -- which he now has since his trading methods have resulted in a suspension for him - and a little elbow grease, they might be able to spiffy it up enough to impress potential buyers.

Yet, two developments threaten to undermine his plans. One is the arrival of young Christie Roberts (ABBIE CORNISH) from California who claims to be Henry's illegitimate daughter and wants to learn about her dad. Since French law allows such illegitimate offspring to inherit property, Max tries to figure out whether she's telling the truth or simply trying to swindle him. Then there's alluring local restaurateur Fanny Chenal (MARION COTILLARD) who Max accidentally and unknowingly runs off the road, thus getting them off on the wrong foot. Having sworn off men and not particularly enamored with this Londoner, Fanny initially wants little to do with him.

Nevertheless, with him pouring on the charm and having plenty of time to kill where he once spent many of his childhood summers, Max does what he can to impress Fanny, all while trying to figure out what to do with the vineyard, chateau, and his life.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
With this year's unsavory and rancid "Beerfest" leaving a bad taste in viewers' mouths following the success of 2004's "Sideways," it was a welcome sight seeing the movie world return to the subject of wine with "A Good Year." Yet, as any vintner will tell you, just having good ingredients and the proper desire doesn't always means the yield will be satisfactory. Sometimes one must let things ferment a bit longer, be a bit less vigorous in the straining process, and hope that the stars align just right to ensure a tasty concoction.

Alas, everything in this midlife crises comedy feels too forced and calculated. That results in what was intended as a light and breezy sampling of vino coming off as the equivalent of some sour, mass-produced, wine in a box. And with its "European countryside reinvigorates the soul" plotline and theme, it could be viewed as the male counterpart to "Under the Tuscan Sun."

Rather than Diane Lane playing a recently divorced American who ends up buying and rebuilding both a Tuscan villa and her own life, we have Russell Crowe embodying a ruthless London bond trader who inherits his late uncle's Provencal chateau and vineyard. Similarly, but certainly not surprisingly, he fixes up the place in order to sell it for a quick profit, only to have his plans and overall demeanor take an unexpected detour.

While certainly nothing terribly original, there's some potential there, particularly in seeing Crowe loosen up a bit for the first time since appearing in the little seen and long forgotten hockey dramedy from 1999, "Mystery, Alaska." Moreover, with director Ridley Scott (who collaborated with the actor on "Gladiator" and has a decent track record of delivering mostly quality films) behind the camera, how bad could things be?

Well, it's not exactly the equivalent of opening an expensive bottle of wine only to encounter some rancid vinegar, but it's certainly not as smooth and tasty as it might have been. Much of that has to do with both tone and the methods used to try to instill that. I can't say whether or not the story works better in Peter Mayle's 2004 novel of the same name (he previously wrote "A Year in Provence"), but Marc Klein's adaptation -- as least as filmed by Scott -- simply feels off.

It's interesting yet ironic that a character in the film makes a comment that the secret to both riches and comedy is timing. The same certainly applies to whimsy, a fanciful quality that's often as hard to cultivate as the wine that exists here -- as in other films -- as much for its human condition symbolism as something simply to consume when not serving as a plot catalyst.

Simply put, whether it's the individual story elements, various visuals (including many a filmmaker's favorite -- the strapping protagonist in the tiny clown-type car), the light score, or especially Crowe's performance, such whim comes off as carefully calculated and forced rather than natural and free flowing. And when that happens in this or any other film, it results in an odd taste both during and after one's exposure to it. Rather than make the viewer want more, it will likely result in most wanting to put their hands over the glass to prevent any more from being poured.

The most compelling and interesting part of the story -- that reportedly wasn't fleshed out in the novel -- is the one that gets the least amount of screen time. Those are the flashback bits featuring Freddie Highmore as Crowe's childhood counterpart interacting with his uncle deliciously played by the great Albert Finney. The moments are present not only to show what helped form Max Skinner into the ruthless if successful businessman he is today, but also what he's left behind and forgotten.

Thus, his presence at his late uncle's estate -- along with interacting with the hired and married help played by Didier Bourdon and Isabelle Candelier -- sparks memories of those past and more carefree and happy days. Since the still building transformation wouldn't be complete without a little romance (no, not that other Diane Lane movie set in Europe), the filmmakers thus introduce the radiantly beautiful Marion Cotillard as a local restaurateur who sparks something more than just the usual randy lust (although that's also present) from Skinner.

As is to be expected, the two initially clash, but as usually occurs in such films, their frosty relationship quickly melts and blossoms into something else. All that's left is for the protagonist to choose between his past, wildly successful but soulless life, and the new, more carefree one he's recently unearthed. You guess which one he picks.

To be fair, there are some nice moments in the film, the performances are generally fine (as long as Crowe isn't trying to do whimsy and/or slapstick -- a bit where he's trapped in a muddy swimming pool is exceedingly painful to watch), and everything -- ranging from the beautiful people to the lovely countryside -- looks terrific thanks to Scott's eye and French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd's lensing.

Yet, more often than not, the picture's tone feels off, and the strain of trying to instill whimsy is all too obvious. Who knows, maybe being around all of that wine went to everyone's head. After all, as 18th century author Samuel Johnson once put it, "Wine makes a man better pleased with himself. I do not say that it makes him more pleasing to others. This is one of the disadvantages of wine, it makes a man mistake words for thoughts." "A Good Year" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed October 18, 2006 / Posted November 10, 2006

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