If you are going to see one Russell Crowe film, this is the ticket. It is not one of his many fine dramatic roles (Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind, The Insider), it is light, romantic comedy. This is a Cary Grant or James Garner role. It might be light and frothy, but you still have to play it straight.
As a fan, I do not expect Ridley Scott to direct a light comedy with a deep emotional core. This is not Alien or Blade Runner or The Martian. It is a romantic film. Let us call it what it is.
Crowe’s character Max Skinner, is a selfish prick. He is a very successful broker, but is morally broke. Max keeps a barrier between himself and other people; he is witty, charismatic, but emotionally distant from other people. Suddenly, he receives news that his estranged uncle Henry has died. As the only living heir, he inherits a vineyard in France, the place he grew up after losing his parents at a young age. A trip to France is in order since we already intends to sell the property. Max’s assistant asks him if he cared for his uncle since he had not seen him in 10 years. Max is at a loss for coming up with a reason.
The viewer will begin to see two sides of Max, the confident, slicked-back heartless financial success; and the slightly messy, fish out of water Englishman in the French countryside. One is in control, the other is not.
Max travels to France. That is where the fun starts. Max is out of his element from the time he picks up his Smart car at the airport instead of the expected luxury sedan, and he has trouble getting the GPS to work, which he needs to find his uncle’s house, the very place where Max lived as a child. This plot device should be a very clear sign post for what is ahead. Max is lost.
Max should not drive an unfamiliar car, try to pay attention to the GPS and operate his cell phone while driving. One of Max’s many mishaps involves dropping his phone and accidentally runs a young woman off the road while his eyes are diverted. This is Fanny, portrayed by Marion Cotillard, and she is very good in this role. She will figure into the story later. Remember, Fanny.
Max hasn’t been to his uncle’s house for 10 years, but the memories immediately start to come back, buried from years away in London living a very a very different life. The vineyard is a working business, but it produces some very bad wine.
Timeout: Scott includes several very good Harry Nilsson songs on the soundtrack. The entire soundtrack of theme and cue music, the songs chosen for key moments, and the old music that represents Henry’s favorites, are a fine grouping of choices.
Okay, bathroom break is over, back to the review.
The house and grounds are run down, but they flood him with memories of activities with Uncle Henry. The swimming pool, and the tennis court, where they played so many matches and Henry tried to pass along lessons about life. Both of these are in disrepair.
Albert Finney is Henry, who in flashbacks helps to educate young Max in the finer points of life, and how to be a man of value. Finney is extraordinary in the role.
Very quickly, Max conflicts with Francis the winemaker, employed by Henry for many years, and who is unhappy with Max’s plan to sell the property. Henry would not appreciate this, Francis says. Everyone, with the exception of friend Charlie, tries to talk Max out of selling the vineyard.
Before Max left for France, he pulled off a stunning financial stock buyback, making him a lot of money and the talk of London. However, this maneuver lands him under investigation.
To his misfortune, Max is trapped in the empty swimming pool and misses an important meeting back in London, where his fate is to be discussed. The woman he ran off the road, Fanny, shows up and rescues him, sort of. She turns on the water, which nearly drowns him, but fills the pool so he can eventually crawl out. She seems to have a special dislike for him, especially after recognizing the car that ran her off the road.
Max’s big financial maneuver results in his suspension. So, a quick trip to France turns into a longer stay. There is no point to returning to London for awhile. Max explores the farm house and the grounds, and decides to put the tennis court back together, since it holds memories of matches with Henry. He challenges Francis to a spirited tennis game and strikes a deal with Francis to help paint and clean up the property for a cut of the sale.
Max has a tough adjustment to the country. The farmhouse has no modern conveniences, but plenty of scorpions. Not anticipating a lengthy stay, Max did not bring a change of clothes, and after his swimming pool misadventure that ruined his suit, Max must turn to Henry’s closet.
The next plot device: An American woman shows up unexpectedly, looking for Henry, her dad. Oops. It seems that Henry may have had a dalliance with an American, the product of which is Christie. This puts a wrench in his plan for a quick sale if she is an heir. He invites her to stay at the farm house, giving him time to check her out.
The days at the vineyard begin to chip away at Max’s aloofness; he lets his guard down. He tries to impress Christie, who comes from Napa and does knows a thing or two about wine. Christie is unlike Max; she is direct and avoids the pretense that surrounds Max.
In the meantime, in town, he spots Fanny at a restaurant, which he discovers she owns. She is not impressed by him, but he is dazzled by her. Max begins his pursuit of her on a night her restaurant is busy and she is struggling with not enough wait staff. Max jumps in to wait tables. It’s the first thing about him that impresses her. At the end of the evening she fires him. He asks her out for a date. There is a spark of interest, but she turns him down, then accepts.
The film includes flashbacks of Uncle Henry teaching Max cricket, tennis, drinking wine and cigars. Soon, Max begins smoking Henry’s cigars, playing his music and wearing his clothes.
Christie begins getting the feel of the place. Her knowledge of vineyards is impressive. She tells him that she does not want anything, just to learn about where she came from. But at a dinner party, Max insults Christie, implying that her credibility is not convincing.
A vine tester arrives to look over his operation in advance of a sell. The results are bad, which will impact their asking price. Later, it is revealed that the tester was paid to provide a bad report, hoping to dissuade Max from selling.
In the meantime, Max’s real estate friend Charlie shows up for a visit. Charlie is immediately smitten with Christie, who looks at him as a brother. In this film, everyone is trying to figure out the other people in the story.
Max and Fanny go on a date, an outdoor movie that gets rained out. Max confesses to her that he is impossibly callused and has only loved his Uncle Henry. Fanny has already figured out that Max has a reputation for getting what he wants. Still, she sleeps with him. In the morning, he is smitten with her, but she tells him she slept with him so that he would lose interest in her and leave her alone. There is no future, she says. The viewer sees that Max’s character catches up with him.
Not feeling any love at the vineyard from Max, Christie decides to continue her backpacking across Europe. But something has changed. Max see her off and gives her a book, which inside contains Henry’s copy of a photo of Henry and her mother, matching the one that she had. Also inside, is a note supposedly written by Henry to Max, where Henry asks Max to find the daughter he never knew and make sure she gets her share of his estate. The note was actually written by Max, in Henry’s style of handwriting, this will provide evidence of her being one of Henry’s heirs. As a lad, Henry often had Max write out his checks.
Meanwhile, Max’s efforts to sell the vineyard have borne fruit. He returns to London and his job, although the head of the firm wants an understanding with him. Max is offered a large parting settlement, or a partnership in the firm. He has an hour to deliver his answer. Max manages to anger his boss over an expensive painting on the wall of his office. It seems that it is only an expensive copy, the real one is safely in a vault. What is on display is not real, but the original is too expensive to actually enjoy. It so happens that Fanny has a cheap copy of that painting in her restaurant.
Christie’s arrival as a heir throws a wrench into the vineyards’s sale. The film’s conclusion wraps the loose character threads. Fanny realizes there is there is a different version of the painting in her restaurant, and finds Max seated and waiting for her. He has left his job, and Charlie is handling the sale of his London apartment. Christie is back at the vineyard, helping Francis operate it. She is also wise to Max writing the letter. Max has settled into the farmhouse. Fanny is there.
As it turns out, Max and Fanny did know each other, as kids, but it takes Max the entirety of the film to realize it. In fact, as kids, they shared a kiss.
Reviews by the critics were mostly brutal, roasting both Crowe and Scott for traveling far outside their lanes. Fan reviews on Rottentomatoes.com were generally kinder, but not much.
A Good Year is perhaps more subtle and low-key than expected of actor and director. It certainly was not Gladiator, their previous film together. A Good Year has neither suds, tears or guffaws. During filming, there were no behind the scenes stories or controversies to fire up the publicity machine. If there were any affairs or fights, they were kept quiet.
I enjoy the film’s subtly, even though it seems to telegraph most of what is ahead. For me, it is not the destination as much as the journey. Max is a scoundrel, both in business and his life. We see that very early in the film. He has few attachments, loves the thrill of financial trading, and is willing to skirt trading regulations to maximize his winnings. Max believes the rules do not apply to him. People who know him accept him for his talents and generosity, but outside of Charlie, he has no friends and certainly no companion in life. However, as much as his boss enjoys the money Max makes for the firm, he does not like the publicity and rule-bending from Max’s latest effort. Max has out-kicked his coverage (football jargon). Like Henry, Max’s boss is trying to get him to understand there are expectations and traditions, even in the cutthroat world of financial trading. Max’s self-destructive financial trading (and suspension) aligned with Henry’s death and the need for Max to return to the vineyard, although at that point, his intentions were to sell the property (Amazing how a film script can do this).
Buried deep inside, Max does have a heart, it just takes a trip back to his roots to find it.