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 (pounds sterling) 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 for our haute- bourgeois hero! There remains a letter, lately delivered from a notary in Provence, bearing news of an inheritance from his departed uncle Henry: the shabby-chic château where he summered as a lad, vineyard and caretakers included. So off Max jets to exile in frogville, there to be met by walking clichés (the gruff yet tender groundskeeper, the hysterically vivacious housekeeper) and a terrible new dilemma: the succulent notary, the tasty waitress, or perhaps his fresh-faced American cousin, paying an unexpected visit with her bright white teeth and murky claim on his inheritance? “In France, is it illegal to shag your cousin?” he asks of a friend. “Only if she’s ugly.”
Such is the setup of Peter Mayle’s novel A Good Year, the perfect diversion for misogynistic investment bankers whose personal assistants neglected to pack the new issue of Vanity Fair in their Vuitton weekenders. Soon to be ignored at a multiplex near you, the film version arrives courtesy of screenwriter Marc Klein and that unsurpassed master of the effervescent rom-com, Sir Ridley Scott. A third-act intrigue concerning the provenance of an exceptionally rare, hideously expensive wine has been eliminated, with the focus now shifted, aimlessly, 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? Max will be helped in these matters by the affections of the egregiously named waitress Fanny Chenal (Marion Cotillard), “Pussy Dior” having presumably been trademarked for an upcoming Bond Girl.
And so pretty people do lovely things in picturesque locales rendered weirdly oppressive by the filmmakers, whose penchant for macho, wide-angle pans is married to an astonishing ability to deploy the famed southern light like a weapon of mass saturation—rich golden sunlight, like a bullion bar chucked at your face. Nevertheless, the climate seems to agree with Crowe, whose performance is humdrum yet palpably relaxed, at least when he isn’t made to talk with a mouthful of crackers in some tragic attempt at levity. 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.
A Good Year is the greatest miscalculation in a career that includes Hannibal, but Scott’s motivation for adapting this insipid holiday porn may be explained by (a) his desire to rest between the heavy lifting of Kingdom of Heaven and the forthcoming American Gangster; (b) the proximity it would afford to his 11-hectare estate in Provence; and (c) it was his stupid idea in the first place.
Mayle first made his name in London advertising circles at the same time Scott was establishing his credentials in TV commercials (“pocket versions of feature films,” he has called them, encapsulating his philosophy of cinema). A friendship was born, and some years later, auteur shared with author a newspaper clipping about the phenomena of “garage wines,” über-exclusive vintages that sell for astronomical prices. None of that Sideways 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. Sir Sourpuss is profoundly ill suited to shill for the good life, unless it be 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. He has done what he can. A throwaway line in the novel about warding off scorpions with dried lavender has been expanded so that every other character must fend off an attack. A Year in Provence: The Conquest of Paradise!