Russell Crowe's latest flick is the Boone's Farm equivalent of Sideways: At first, it feels pretty good, is really sweet, has some cheap thrills, and puts you in a good mood; but finishing the thing will likely result in a splitting headache.
A Good Year is also a comic, romantic tale of a wayward man finding his way in a winery. Yet, unlike Sideways' scribe and director Alexander Payne, director Ridley Scott lacks subtlety. The man behind Black Hawk Down and Gladiator is something of a hammer behind the lens, and his movies, at least the good ones, hit hard.
What Scott has going for him is a healthy affection for Russell Crowe for which no one should blame him even if the hot-tempered Aussie isn't a perfect fit.
Crowe is hardly the obvious choice as an uptight Englishman in syrupy rom-com that's set in the lush surrounds of Provence. (Where were Colin Firth and Hugh Grant?) But there's something satisfying about seeing Crowe here. (He's even doing rounds of off-screen interviews to dispel his bad-boy rep, hamming it up with Martha Stewart!)
And, for much of this, Crowe's not half-bad. As ruthless bond trader Max Skinner, he's pretty much in his element, lording over the minions in his big-time London office and canoodling with the chicks.
On the other hand, Crowe is only half good. When Uncle Henry dies, his winery goes to Max. So Max returns to the French grape estate, the very one where he spent the best days of his youth. He falls for a feisty restaurateur (the gorgeous Marion Cotillard). As Max goes soft, Crowe flounders.
Crowe can be a fearless captain or a brave warrior, but he's obviously weak-kneed playing a lovestruck schmuck. He doesn't bumble as naturally as some of his British counterparts, and never looks comfortable wearing a loopy smile or taking a pratfall for chuckles. To use archetypes cribbed from Bridget Jones, Crowe is far more a devilish Daniel Cleaver than a fumbling Mr. Darcy.
Scott's out of place, too. There's none of his trademark bloodshed or violence, but some of the director's style comes through: beautiful imagery, highly stylized camera tricks and dreamy flashbacks. But these visual devices seem out of place in the quiet surrounds of the countryside.
Whereas Sideways lets the beauty of the wine country speak for itself, Scott seems to be forcing the point. Gloomy London looks as silent and grey as a Morrissey song, and the contrast is drastic next to the vineyard scenes, where the director drowns flashbacks of Max's early days with warmth and light.
That feeling of forced emotion is what sinks A Good Year. Scott and Crowe make a near perfect match when their machismo and bravado can run wild, but as for their sensitive sides, they could use a bit more finesse. It's one thing to force a round peg into a square hole, but it's another to take a stick of dynamite and blow it to bits.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.