Pity Max Skinner, emasculated over his lamb chops. On a gray afternoon, at London's hot spot du jour, his gloating superior unveils a plot to poach his most lucrative client, divesting him of a six-figure bonus in the process. Fuck it. The bummed-out bond trader hands in a resignation letter and the keys to his company BMW. "Better to die on your feet than live on your knees," Max reflects, happy to be done with his meddlesome boss, if less than pleased to reacquaint himself with "the face of public transport."
Yet all is not lost. A letter arrives from a notary in Provence, bearing news of an inheritance from his late uncle Henry: the shabby-chic chateau, complete with vineyards, where he summered as a boy. So off Max jets to exile in France, there to encounter the usual characters (the gruff yet tender groundskeeper, the hysterically vivacious housekeeper) and a new dilemma: the succulent notary, the tasty waitress, or perhaps his fresh-faced American cousin, who unexpectedly arrives with a murky claim on his inheritance? "In France, is it illegal to shag your cousin?" he asks a friend. "Only if she's ugly," comes the reply.
Such is the setup of Peter Mayle's novel A Good Year, the perfect diversion for misogynistic investment bankers who've mislaid their copy of the new issue of Vanity Fair. The film version arrives courtesy of screenwriter Marc Klein and that unsurpassed master of the effervescent romantic comedy, Sir Ridley Scott. The film focuses on the primitive life lessons learned by Max (Russell Crowe). Will he come to appreciate the simple things in life? You know, like sleeping in, luxuriating on the terrace, and resisting the urge to destroy people?
Here pretty people do lovely things in picturesque locales rendered weirdly oppressive by the filmmakers, who combine macho, wide-angle pans with a penchant for deploying the famed southern light like a carpet bomb. The climate seems to agree with Crowe, whose performance is relaxed, yet humdrum. Scott can do mayhem, dystopia, and the rampaging alien (extraterrestrial, android, Somali, Demi Moore) with the best of them, but the breezy touch is not his forte. A Good Year just about peaks in comedic invention when a Jack Russell terrier named Tati pees on Max's loafer.
Peter Mayle made his name in London advertising circles when Scott was establishing his credentials in TV commercials. A friendship was born, and some years later, auteur shared with author a newspaper clipping about the phenomenon of "garage wines," über-exclusive vintages that sell for astronomical prices. No philosophizing about the spirit of the grape for these two. "They are not mere bottles of liquid," writes Mayle. "They are investments."
A Good Year offers little return on your own $10 investment beyond the spectacle of Scott misplacing his talents. He's profoundly ill suited to shill for the good life, unless it's to stage its destruction, and yet A Good Year isn't wholly uncharacteristic. Uptight and vapid, bursting with spectacular landscapes and virtuoso production design, it lacks only a horde of bloodthirsty Visigoths to fit seamlessly into the oeuvre.