Suffice it to say I am not a regular consumer of romantic comedies. Most of them seem to offer all the intellectual stimulation of week-old Twinkies. For a movie in this genre to even catch my attention, it has to offer something unique. In this case, director Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe are anything but your typical “RomCom” tag team, so their participation alone is at least worthy of taking note.
Of course, no one can guarantee that this kind of talent pool will ensure artistic success, but despite what you may have heard, this adaptation of Peter Mayle’s novel has more than its share of charms to compensate for a noticeable lack of originality.
Max Skinner (Crowe) is a London-based financial wizard who used to live with his Uncle Henry (Albert Finney) on the old man’s vineyard in the Provence region of France. He’s just a ruthless and cunning about making money as he was playing chess or tennis against his Uncle as a boy (played in flashback by Freddie Highmore). Right after pulling a particularly underhanded (and very profitable) financial maneuver, Max learns that his uncle has died without a will and, as Henry’s only living relative, Max has inherited the old vineyard. Intending just to sell it and get back to making money, he heads off to inspect the property.
However, after arriving in Provence, he finds that things are not as simple as he thought. Being on the grounds of the vineyard for the first time in years bring back a flood of pleasant childhood memories. Also, the vineyard’s longstanding vigneron (vine grower), Francis (Didier Bourdon), doesn’t want to leave. Max also takes notice of a local waitress named Fanny Chenal (Marion Cotillard), leading to him to wonder if there’s a life outside the fast-paced London financial markets, especially since an investigation into his latest business deal casts doubt on his future employment. Finally, the arrival of a young woman (Abbie Cornish) claiming to be Henry’s illegitimate daughter throws Max’s claim to the vineyard and his plans into disarray.
The story of the hard-charging, materialistic type-A personality rediscovering his roots and learning to stop and smell the, um, grapes is a staple of the romantic comedy that has probably been around since the days of the pharaohs. A Good Year works not because it breaks any new ground but because it takes its time, allows its characters time to breathe. They may be a familiar and comfortable as an old pair of slippers but they are not without substance.
That’s not to say that the movie is without its flaws. Moments of slapstick are few and, when they do happen, they seem as out of place as a review of Mad Dog 20/20 in an issue of Wine Spectator. Also, the story has a lot of balls to keep in the air and seems to let a couple of them, especially regarding Max’s job back in London, fall by the wayside. On the plus side, the movie benefits from a couple of sharply drawn supporting performances. Isabelle Candalier is delightful as Francis’ warm, earthy wife, Ludivine, while Archie Panjabi brings an understated, tart intelligence to Max’s hyper-efficient assistant, Gemma.
So, while A Good Year breaks zero new narrative ground, it doesn’t ever feel like a waste of two hours. You may learn a thing or two about wine, although not as much as you might get from watching Sideways again, but you will definitely learn that, to a French cyclist, the words “Lance Armstrong” are English for “fuck you.” How many romantic comedies can claim to be so educational?