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Movie review: 'A Good Year'

Mary F. Pols
Contra Costa Times
Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard star in "A Good Year".

"A Good Year" is the story of a jerk in an expensive suit who inherits a French chateau, and after a few transformative, sun-soaked weeks under the Provencal sun, becomes a jerk in a ratty bathrobe.

This arrogant, greedy London stockbroker, Max Skinner, is played by Russell Crowe, reteaming with director Ridley Scott for the first time since 2000's Oscar-winning "Gladiator." Although both movies feature lion pits (in this case, the trading floor) and dreamy country estates, they couldn't be more different.

In "A Good Year" machismo is a thing to be gotten ridden of, not celebrated. It's more reminiscent of "Under the Tuscan Sun," but instead of a forlorn Diane Lane renovating a Tuscan farmhouse, `Year' gives us the odious Max undergoing a dubious renovation of the soul.

In flashbacks we see young Max (Freddie Highmore from "Finding Neverland") spending his summers with his uncle Henry (Albert Finney). Henry is a jolly fellow, who teaches the young boy to play tennis and appreciate fine wine.

His efforts to teach him to be a good sport are less successful. At some point, Max graduates from merely bratty to boorish, the kind of guy who calls his employees "lab rats," caresses the knee of a female employee in passing and hasn't had any contact with his uncle in years.

Nonetheless, when Henry dies, the estate is left to Max. He promptly heads off to France to assess the place's selling potential. He is so heartless he cares nothing -- not a sous! -- for Henry's legacy of winemaking or for the future of the cutesy couple who run the place, the Duflots (Didier Bourdon and Isabelle Candelier).

The cure for a man this far gone into Gordon Gekko territory is threefold: First, he must be forced to drive a rented lime green car so small it might be considered a go-cart. Second, he should be forced, literally, to wear the clothes of his cigar chomping, wisdom spouting uncle, triggering reflections on how much Henry appreciated life. Then he must catch a glimpse of the derriere of a feisty French beauty (Marion Cotillard). An American derriere is also introduced, that of a Californian named Christie (Abbie Cornish) who may or may not be Henry's illegitimate daughter and Max's cousin. As a signal that Max's character is improving, he manages, with some effort, to keep his eyes on the more appropriate prize.

The movie was adapted from Peter Mayle's novel of the same name. Scott and Mayle worked together as young men in the advertising business and they remain such good friends that they concocted the idea of the book together.

The story is so thin -- in one sequence, Messieurs Skinner and Duflot play a lengthy game of tennis together, during which the dramatic tension builds to the revelation that both of them are sweaty and out of breath -- one imagines Scott and Mayle devised it in roughly the same amount of time it takes to drink a bottle of wine. There is a sideplot involving a legendary garage wine, but the mystery is so transparent Inspector Clouseau would have seen through it.

But the book was a best-seller, and the movie, being gentle and easy on the eyes, may well find its own warm reception. Certainly it's built to sell.

Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd makes it look like a feature from Travel & Leisure or Gourmet come to life. Should you enter the frame -- which of course, you want to do, at least when Max is out of it -- you would feel obliged to carry a bowl of olives with you.

Once there, any number of enticing fantasies could come true for you as well. You could find a sassy soul mate. You could become a better man or woman. All you have to do is stop and smell the Vin.

___

A GOOD YEAR

Grade: C

Starring: Russell Crowe, Albert Finney, Marion Cotillard, Abbie Cornish, Tom Hollander, Freddie Highmore

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: PG-13 for language and some sexual content

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

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