A Good Year 

Peter Mayle's cozy 2004 best-seller A Good Year tells the story of Max Skinner, a successful London stock trader who, upon the death of the beloved uncle who raised him, returns to the French vineyard where he spent much of his boyhood to sell the place as quickly as possible. Once there, he finds his lost soul and falls in love with a French hottie.

Yes, yes, I know: What a crock. And yet, somehow, seeing is relieving. Owing much to the return of Russell Crowe's charisma, Ridley Scott's filming of the novel suffices to entertain us for a few hours, as long as your stomach isn't irrevocably turned by the very idea.

A Good Year is almost pathetically charming, holding no bars to be so: Crowe falls into an empty swimming pool filled with manure, gets peed on by a surly Jack Russell terrier, and jumps on his bed like a scared little girl when he finds a scorpion in his room. (Two other characters do the same thing.) It's also as pretty as a series of pictures, thanks to the work of cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who mutes the sumptuous sunlight of the French countryside just enough that we don't have to squint.

The fact that it gives us no reason to care about any of its characters or their situations is of no consequence. What reason could they give us anyway, with such banality and cliché? It's a cinematic bon-bon made with artificial sweetener, and everyone involved clearly knows it: They throw away the story's plot twists as if they can barely be bothered with them. This is not what we've come to expect from Scott (Gladiator), whose work is usually more manufactured than directed.

Max's revivification in the French countryside brings him in contact with the gorgeous grown-up restaurateur with whom he shared his first kiss as a child; an ingenuous young American woman who may be his cousin; the passionate French winemaker who runs the estate; the man's pneumatic wife; and in Max's memory, his bon vivant Uncle Henry (Albert Finney).

Could A Good Year have been any better and still be A Good Year? No, probably not. The screenplay, adapted by Marc Klein, makes a few tart observations about the fast life and flashes some occasional wit, especially when it plays with tensions between the French and the English. We could have used a lot more of that. But for every good line in the movie, Scott permits five times as many bad ones. The acting in A Good Year is calculably easygoing, although I doubt this movie would be anything without Crowe, who reminds us -- after too many years and too many scowls -- of just how blithe and affable he can be.

click to enlarge Russell Crowe, poised for a dive into France
  • Russell Crowe, poised for a dive into France

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