"A Good Year" is a sun-drenched fantasy about the power of wine, women, and Provence to cure whatever ails us, and it is no deeper than a bowl of consommé. And what of it? Movies are fantasy, too, and when a craftsman like director Ridley Scott and a gloomy Oscar-winning gus like Russell Crowe decide to take a vacation, it can be time off for us all.
Based on a novel by Peter Mayle -- who for 15 years now has been selling Provence to the masses like shrink-wrapped ham -- the new movie is a shamelessly enjoyable retread, an ode to la belle vie that has been well turned on a factory spindle.
Plus, there's the pleasure of seeing Crowe lighten his load for once and not carry the weight of Marlon Brando on his shoulders. The actor even goes in for a little slapstick here, and while it's hardly convincing -- it's like watching a Brahma bull trying to tap dance -- you appreciate the effort.
When we first meet Max Skinner (Crowe), he's a British master of the universe, a currency trader who's happy to break a gentleman's agreement if there's profit to be had. (Actually, he does it for the sheer joy of being mean.) Max has it all -- a fast-track career, a devoted assistant (Archie Punjabi), willowy women by the boxcar -- but is he really happy? If you answer yes, you don't get out of the house enough.
In flashback, we've seen young Max at play in the French vineyards of his Uncle Henry (Albert Finney), an aging rapscallion who pegs the kid as his proper heir in knavery. Freddie Highmore, the heart-wrencher of "Finding Neverland" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," plays Crowe as a boy, and he instinctively gets the ego and the quickness of the future man -- the love of getting one over on another person. Lord, is this kid good.
Back in modern-day England, Max gets word that Henry has died and left the Provence estate to him; he reluctantly leaves his London kingdom and crosses the Channel to sell the place. Cue the birdsong, the swoony Franche music, and a lighting change from cold blues to deep, honeyed ambers. Seriously, the yellow-filter budget for "A Good Year" probably cost more than all of "Little Miss Sunshine."
At this point, Scott and company just stop and smell the lavender. "Year" crawls to a halt while Max investigates the fruits of his vineyard -- it tastes like battery acid, unfortunately -- jousts with the slovenly estate caretaker (Didier Bourdon), and drinks in the sight of the local femmes. The film's big joke is that there isn't a shabby-looking woman in the entire province and that beauty is encoded among them at the genetic level. The men, of course, are free to look like swine.
Indeed, this veers close to piggery -- or, at the very least, to a talented British director going heavy on the ooh-la-la -- but the sight of actress Marion Cotillard as a local restaurateur puts a stop to all complaints. She is simply, elegantly, meltingly lovely, and there's not a thing you can do about it.
"A Good Year" piles on the complications without reaching the dizzying RPM necessary for farce; that would be too much work. A young American woman named Christie (Australian actress Abbie Cornish, from "Somersault") turns up claiming to be Henry's illegitimate daughter, and Max has to decide whether to welcome this potential cousin, scare her off, or seduce her. Yes, that's a little creepy but Scott doesn't seem to notice and, anyway, we're quickly off to the next meal, the next bottle, the next sunset.
The film is about the magic of letting a place get to you -- changing your rhythms and thought patterns -- and it has the glow of a second week at the beach, when you finally shake off your old life. The story line is utterly predictable and utterly beside the point; Scott and Crowe are after the ripeness of atmosphere.
So the star's performance hangs on the film like grapes on the vine; the way Crowe plays it, Max's delight in financial piracy has merely been diverted toward the things one can touch: soil, the curve of a bottle or of a woman's shoulder. If "Sideways" was about life's bitter aftertaste, "A Good Year" is about savoring the first swallow. Both movies are comedies; this one's just cheaper and easier to drink. Maybe it is travel-poster porn, but it's November now, and the afternoons are dark. There are worse things to sell than hedonism.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.