Scenery chews actors in 'Year'

Russell Crowe has more chemistry with the Provençal countryside than with his costar.

The best thing about "A Good Year" is the Provençal scenery. This is a bit like saying that the best thing about a restaurant is its décor. Ridley Scott's movie, based on the Peter Mayle novel, is a feast for the eyes, but not much else.

Russell Crowe plays Max Skinner, a sharky London investment banker who inherits from his uncle Henry (Albert Finney, seen in flashbacks) a chateau and vineyard in the south of France. Fresh from a killing in the market, he flies to the estate intending to make another killing on the sale, but instead falls in love with the slowed-down sensuousness of the lifestyle there.

He also falls for the high-strung sensuosness of Fanny (Marion Cotillard), a local restaurant owner who has been burned too many times by men. He plays hard, but she's hard to get.

If "A Good Year" had settled for being a simple fable it might have cast the desired spell. Scott clearly reveres the great French comedy director Jacques Tati – clips of his films are shown, and the estate's dog is named Tati – but Scott's muscular temperament is about as far from the light-fingered Tati's as possible. The slapstick pratfalls and farcical escapades are clunkily staged. One in particular, where Max tries to climb out of the muddy bottom of an abandoned swimming pool, is almost a model of how not to construct a comic sequence.

Crowe is miscast. As if to advertise the fact that he is not the surly romantic icon of films past (including Scott's "Gladiator"), he struts around Provence wearing dweeby glasses and with his straightened hair parted in the middle. This ploy is the masculine equivalent of all those movies where attractive women wear specs and dress like a spinsters in order to show us how wholesome they truly are.

Because Crowe is hamstrung by his role, he never strikes the requisite sparks with Cotillard. This is quite an achievement, since her beauty is on par with Provence's.

Still, the lush glimmer of the scenery is so eye-catching that it's easy to sit back and experience "A Good Year" as a kind of tony travelogue. I suspect one reason the film was made in the first place was to offer the cast and Scott, who has an estate and vineyard in the south of France, the luxury of making a movie in Provence. Scott and Mayle toiled together in the vineyards of the English advertising world before becoming famous in their respective careers. "A Good Year" is their class reunion. Grade: B–

"A Good Year" is rated PG-13 for language and some sexual content.

Sex/Nudity: 7 scenes, including implied sex. Violence: 2 mild scenes. Profanity: 40 instances, including a few harsh expressions. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 14 scenes with drinking, 5 with smoking.

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