I don't think it's an overstatement to say that it's surprising to hear that the men behind Gladiator would choose to collaborate on a romantic comedy. But unfortunately, it is an overstatement to say director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe succeeded in either the romantic or the comedy. The romance is a rushed afterthought that's really only in a fourth of the movie. And the comedy is forced and groan-worthy. In fact, there's little passion or joy at all in A Good Year.
Based on the novel by Peter Mayle, A Good Year tells the story of Max Skinner (Crowe), a ruthless, hedonistic and unlikable London stock trader who won't let anything get in the way of making money—including morality. When he's forced to return to the Provence vineyards that belong to his Uncle Max (Albert Finney), he begins to recall the joys of his summers spent in France as a boy. Living in this place of beauty and a more simple life, Max's life is changed by the estate's caretaker (Didier Bourdon), a young woman who claims to be a relative (Abbie Cornish), and a local restaurant owner (Marion Cotillard).
A Good Year has been widely compared to both Under a Tuscan Sun and Sideways because of the focus on life-changing reflection and winemaking. But one of the biggest problems for the film is that it's comparable to so many films. It's one thing to use the common theme of an unfulfilled professional who finds a reawakening, but it's another to not do anything original with it. There isn't much in A Good Year that hasn't been done—and done better.
At its core, A Good Year is a story about how love—of a woman, of family, and of life itself—can change a man. But it's a film about change without much change. It's very hard to see the differences between the Beginning Max and the Ending Max. We're told he's different. Some characters say he even looks different after leaving London and taking in the simple life of the French countryside. But it's all tell and little show. Unlike Hugh Grant's gentle but tangible character change in About a Boy, we really don't see Max becoming a new man. When a character teases Max that he'll will get bored of his new life and go back to his old ways, it's easy to wonder if he's right.
When Max does do some good and self-sacrificing acts in the end, they come almost out of nowhere. His motivations are unclear. Does he really care for others? Or is he in it for himself? For instance, when Fanny, a local café owner is swamped on a busy night, he starts serving tables for her. But is it because he cares for her and genuinely wants to help? Because he feels guilty for a previous self-centered action? Or because he wants to go to bed with her?
In fact, this last question trips onto an unintentional theme of the film. Perhaps because it is a romantic comedy from the man's perspective, women are almost exclusively portrayed as just bodies; they are heavily sexualized, and men regularly talk about them like they're objects. Their bodies seem to be the only positive attributes the men notice. Also, while Henry lived his life with a vibrant passion for women, it was never for just one woman. In this way, the movie indirectly argues that being a man of passion means being a womanizer and a letch.
Max begins to savor his new life in Provence—and his new love, cafe owner Fanny Chenal (Marion Cotillard)
The film does have two great successes in its themes of living life with passion. However, both pluses are barely realized and only hint at the better movie this could have been.
The first plus is an interesting character juxtaposition that illustrates what different people live for. The film sets up two very different older men in young Max's life. One is Uncle Henry who Max has grown embarrassed of because, according to Max, he did little with his life. He just sat in his failure of a vineyard like a silly, pathetic old man. On the other hand is Sir Nigel (Kenneth Cranham), who is barely in the film but from one short scene, it seems he is a man of accomplishment worthy of respect. He's run the rat race and he's won it. His great passion in life—besides money and business of course—is art, and namely one painting he keeps locked in a vault.
To Max, Nigel is the more successful—until he finds a new means to measure a life. He realizes that a truly successful life is that lived with love, joy and passion. Where Nigel keeps his locked away, Henry's passion is his everyday.
The film's second—and greatest—triumph is a handful of short flashbacks between Uncle Henry and the young Max (played by the brilliant Freddie Highmore from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland). These gentle, joyful and endearing scenes recall warm films like Secondhand Lions and Big Fish. Their interactions make you wish for a whole movie of the captivating Finney and Highmore. In fact, during the more dull and heavy-handed scenes with Crowe, I daydreamed about a movie of just this boy and his uncle learning about life together in a French vineyard. Or even a 50/50 split with the modern day scenes to show how recalling that past affects this man's life. Then, the movie could have told a story of love, passion and joy with some love, passion and joy.Discussion starters
- How do you define success? What does it mean to be successful? Who is most successful: Sir Nigel, Uncle Henry, or the estate's caretaker? Why
- What do you think happens in the story after the credits roll? Does this life continue to satisfy Max? Why
- What role in life should passion have? Is your life like Nigel's, where passion is kept in a vault and entertained in good time? Or are you like Henry's whose whole life revolved around his passions? What are you passionate about
- Did you feel the movie objectified women? Why or why not? What do you think Max and Henry love about women?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
A Good Year is rated PG-13 for language and some sexual content, but it should be approached as an R film. While swearing is not constant, there is a full gamut of profanity (including middle fingers). The actual sexual content is limited to one scene of passionate kissing and undressing (with no nudity) on the way to bed. However, the movie features a lot of innuendo and dialogue about "shagging." One woman's bare back and rear are exposed. Another has her skirt lifted up to show part of her thighs and rear. Women are often dressed revealingly (in low tops or swimsuits) and male characters blatantly size them up—leading to an unintended theme of objectifying women.
Photos © Copyright 20th Century Fox
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 11/16/06
When you hear the names Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, what words spring to mind? Soft? Charming? Comical? Romantic?
No, I didn't think so. And perhaps that's why Scott's new film, A Good Year, isn't working too well.
The film stars Crowe as a man who needs to rethink his life, and gets a lot of help from unexpected encounters with French food, French wine, and a French woman in Provence. But unlike Stranger Than Fiction, in which the hero learns quite a bit about the true meaning of life, this guy apparently only learns how to relax and enjoy himself.
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "Though undeniably picturesque, this is a leisurely paced comedy. … [T]hough this old-fashioned romantic comedy … is all too rare, the often lame humor and workaday script make for indifferent viewing."
Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says it's "as predictable as a commuter flight on a clear night; you can see that landing strip coming for miles and miles. … It wants us to see the good life as the one spent soaking up pleasure and community and beauty. Better, maybe, but in the end just a different brand of hedonism apart from selfless service of others."
Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) calls it "a fair film that has an unmistakable lesson about stopping to smell the roses … yet it lumps along rather slowly and unremarkably at times. Unlike … Gladiator, this movie is more of a gentle, thoughtful, European-feeling drama that's sweet but not overly inspirational."
Greg Wright (Past the Popcorn) says, "It just doesn't add up to anything memorable for me. … What most disappointed me, though, wasn't that the film simply wasn't my cup of tea … . What bothered me most was the distinct feeling that huge chunks of the film's story had been left scattered on the cutting-room floor."
Mainstream critics, who usually admire both Scott and Crowe, aren't persuaded by the scenery or the sensuality.