Scott returns to France for the first time since his 1977 feature film debut The Duellists for the fluffy soufflé A Good Year. Maximillian Skinner (Russell Crowe) – hardly the most subtle of names – is a self-proclaimed asshole that inherits his uncle’s winemaking estate in Provence. His Uncle Henry (Albert Finney, who also appeared in The Duellists) raised him there, but evidently failed to impart the kinds of life lessons that would have moulded Skinner into a decent human being capable of savoring the joys of life. The ideal life as defined in the film is essentially everything that a life of leisure in Provence provides: namely, wine and women. But Skinner’s life in London is made up of much of the very same, so the solution to fixing Skinner’s poisoned soul is not to add something that is missing, but rather to subtract something: his assholeness. Skinner does sometimes manifest some self-awareness; one moment he seems to genuinely relish his life as the most venal of London stockbrokers, but the next he professes a love we’ve never before seen for his uncle and the simple life of Provence.
Skinner’s wavering character complements a number of confusing plot holes. A running mystery is the mysterious provenance of an exceptional “garage wine” (limited batches by tiny operations, sometimes literally in a garage). Didier (Francis Dulot), the longtime tender of the Skinner vinyard, admits to deliberately producing undrinkably vile wine under the vinyard’s banner, in an attempt to run down the value of the place and hopefully disinterest Skinner in selling it. But is he simultaneously directing his real talents into the making of the mysterious garage wine? The plot thread is dropped and we never learn for sure. The cool closing credits make the film seem more entertainingly screwball than it actually was, and there’s also an utterly bewildering coda involving Skinner’s snarky assistant Gemma (Archie Panjabi) meeting a rapper and his agent. Huh?
I’m not sure if Crowe has the same sort of Cary Grant-like appeal for women that George Clooney has in spades, but there is plenty of eye candy for male viewers. The luscious Californian backpacker Christie (Abbie Cornish) appears on Skinner’s doorstep claiming to be his only blood relative, and thus a rival to his inheritance of the estate. French actress Marion Cotillard would later disguise herself very unflatteringly to play the frail, sickly Edith Piaf in the turgid biopic La Vie En Rose, but here she uncorks her full-on Gallic gorgeousness as Fanny (again, another of the movie’s unsubtle names – for she rather spectacularly lifts her skirt in an outdoors cafe, to the delight of the entire town and, admittedly, me). One of the funniest recurring gags is the priapic Skinner’s helpless doubletakes to any of many displays of ripe breasts and bums. But unfortunately, one of the other recurring jokes is his repeated involuntary exposures to animal dung.
A Good Year takes quite a long time to get going, but does seem to pick up some comedic energy once Skinner’s cold London heart defrosts while courting Fanny in the second act. Ridley Scott can always be counted for fine art direction and cinematography, but here he wields his talents bluntly. Even the color temperature is clichéd, lest any viewers miss the point; Provence is amber-hued, and London is steely electric blue. The right choice for Skinner is never in doubt; living on a winemaking estate in Provence with a beautiful French girl is a fantasy probably every human being on earth shares, asshole or not.