Shallow City boy Max Skinner (Crowe) discovers that his favourite uncle (Finney) has died, leaving him his mansion and Provence vineyard. Max heads to the south of France to sell them off quick, but fond childhood memories and wranglings with the locals conspire to send his plan awry.
Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe must love the fact that their first collaboration since Gladiator couldn’t be less similar to the sword ’n’ sandal epic that revived the former’s A-list career and launched the latter’s. “They didn’t expect us to do this,” you can almost hear them chortling. Well, there are some similarities: in both films, Russell Crowe owns a vineyard, in both he’s called Max (sort of) and, uh, that’s it. A Good Year is an entirely different bottle of plonk: rosé rather than claret, if you want to stretch a metaphor.
But while it’s all well and good to see them together again, the material doesn’t prove a fit for either. Crowe’s not attempted comedy since the disastrous Mystery, Alaska and Scott’s only previous tussle with the genre was the uneven Matchstick Men (unless you count Hannibal). The problem’s not so much that A Good Year is a comedy per se; rather that it’s one of those very gentle, breezy little comedies — you know, the kind your mum likes to watch after the Sunday roast — which require a light touch, a feel for the flippant and, ideally, an undercurrent of self-knowing absurdity to make them truly appealing. None of this is evident in either Crowe’s performance or Scott’s direction. There’s a forced jauntiness, a sense of careful calculation whizzing away behind the comedy beats, from Crowe’s intense pratfalls as Max tries to escape a derelict swimming pool, to his plummy exclamations of “bollocks” at every available opportunity.
Quite simply, Crowe and Scott are just too heavyweight. There is some novelty value in seeing Crowe squeezing his burly frame into the kind of role usually reserved for Hugh Grant or Colin Firth, but it soon wears off. The film does at least look great — who better than Scott to shoot the dusty villages and sun-snogged vistas of Bouche-du-Rhône? — and works best in its more sombre moments, as Max’s deeply buried, Freddie Highmore-shaped soul is exhumed via a series of oddly-timed flashbacks.
That A Good Year’s attempts at humour fall flat is also the fault of the script: there’s not a single good gag in here. Max’s smarmy quips, his rosbif-versus-frog sparring with shifty vintner Roussel (Didier Bourdon), the daffy maid who’s forever a breath away from squealing, “Ooh la la!”… It’s all rather flimsy, obvious stuff — these are cultural references that you need to blow the dust off. If you want a decent midlife-crisis wine comedy, stick with Sideways.
The Merlot to Sideways Pinot, this is one of those middling movies that, while never terrible, also never really impresses. The Russ/Ridders comedy experiment has not entirely worked.