When you have a film like A Good Year, you only need a couple of things for it to be at least partially successful. You need a lead who is both a terrible person and worthy of redemption, and you need a plot that’s tolerable and will allow for this main character to go through the stages of transformation required in order to be fully redeemed. A Good Year has the first, with Russell Crowe as a greedy corporate businessman, but lacks a little in the latter.
Max Skinner (Crowe) has just finished making $77 million in one day using ruthless tactics on the stock market. Unfortunately for him, his uncle, Henry (Albert Finney) has just passed away. Max was the only family that he had left, and since no will was left, Max gets everything that belonged to him. The most important possession is a vineyard in southern France, a place where a young Max (Freddie Highmore) used to go to during summer holidays. There’s a nostalgic factor about the place for Max, so it makes perfect sense that he smiles when he finds out that the vineyard is now his.
Of course, we might think he’s smiling because he’s happy he can live there now, but in reality, he’s smiling because he’s picture the dollar bills that he’s going to get after he sells it. He has no plans to live there, use it to make fine wine, or even keep the staff. He wants it sold as quickly as possible so as to not have it disrupt his life. He travels down there to take pictures of it and make sure everything is in order, and it’s here where most of our story takes place.
So, most of the film deals with Max learning about the vineyard, coming to terms with the fact that he inherited a lot more from Henry than just his uncle’s possessions, and maybe even learning to be a decent human being. Helping him along one this quest are a couple of women, one of whom he begins to have a crush on (Marion Cotillard), and the other who claims to be an illegitimate child of Henry’s (Abbie Cornish) — she throws a wrench into Max’s plan to sell, as she would technically inherit the place if she is indeed Henry’s daughter.
Notice how I haven’t exactly mentioned a lot of story. That’s because there really isn’t much of one. Most of the film just follows Russell Crowe around the vineyard property, drinking lots of wine, talking with the two ladies who are now in his life, and beginning the steps to redemption. The only real question left is whether he’ll still sell the vineyard after everything that film throws at him. Obviously, I won’t reveal that to you now.
There’s just not a whole lot going on, which leads to a feeling of boredom for a lot of the film. Yes, the characters and relationships are nice, but they never really do anything. Crowe mostly just sits around, Cornish also mostly just sits around, and Cotillard acts like she hates everyone but in a way that allows you to figure out that she doesn’t, and that her attitude is a defense mechanism for the world. But she sends out those vibes while either waiting tables or sitting down at one.
The only interesting parts of the film — the parts which you haven’t necessarily seen before in other “redemption” films — come from the flashbacks in which Max and Henry spend their time playing tennis, chess, writing letters, or other such things. And this is only interesting because it’s at least somewhat different from the norm. We haven’t seen it a dozen times before. Well, not in this type of movie, at least. We’ve seen these types of flashbacks countless times, but at least the characters within them are doing something.
Instead of seeing a lot happening on-screen, we have to focus on the dialogue, on the actors and their relationships to the other actors that they’re talking with, and on the scenery. Shooting in Provence region of France allows for beautiful shots to be composed, and while there’s usually little going on in the foreground, the background always has something to admire. The director here is Ridley Scott, and while this film isn’t his best (although it may be his cheapest in recent years), he continues to show us that he knows how to compose a shot.
The film almost works because of its actors. I’ve always liked watching Russell Crowe work, and while his accent doesn’t always hold true in A Good Year, the rest of his performance is solid. He’s charismatic enough to make us want to see him grow, but he’s also a bit of a jerk, leading to an initial disdain. He also puts himself through a bit more physical torture than you might think, selling the role as well as he can. His co-stars, Cotillard and Cornish, are less noticeable but serve their purpose.
A Good Year is about half of the way to becoming a good movie. If it only had a plot that we could follow along with, or perhaps if the characters actually did something, it might be worthwhile. As it stands, it’s a character piece about a man needing redemption, and to improve himself, he’s going to sit in a chair and drink wine all day. Not much more happens than that, and it’s hard to recommend the film because of it. Unless you are a really big Russell Crowe fan (like, as big a fan as Ridley Scott seems to be), A Good Year isn’t worth your time.