Heart Attack

 

Pity Max Skinner, emasculated over his lamb chops. On a gray afternoon at a London hot spot, his gloating superior unveils a plot to poach his most lucrative client, divesting him of a six-figure bonus in the process. 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, delivered from a notary in Provence, bearing news of an inheritance from his departed uncle Henry: the shabby-chic chateau where he summered as a lad, vineyard and caretakers included. So off Max jets to exile, to be met by walking clichés (the gruff groundskeeper, the hysterical housekeeper) and an array of potential sex partners.

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. The film version arrives courtesy of screenwriter Marc Klein and that unsurpassed master of the effervescent romantic comedy, Ridley Scott. A third-act intrigue concerning the provenance of an exceptionally rare, hideously expensive wine has been eliminated, with the focus now shifted to the primitive life lessons learned by Max (Russell Crowe). Will he come to appreciate the simple things in life? You know — sleeping in, luxuriating on the terrace, resisting the urge to destroy people? Max will be helped in these matters by the affections of a waitress named Fanny (Marion Cotillard).

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 that famed southern light like a weapon of mass saturation — rich golden sunlight chucked at your face like a bullion bar.

The climate seems to agree with Crowe, whose performance is 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 rampaging aliens (extraterrestrial, android, Somali, Demi Moore) with the best of them, but the breezy touch is not his forte. A Good Year‘s peak in comic invention comes 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 or (c) the fact that it was his idea in the first place.

Mayle first made his name in London advertising circles at the same time that Scott was establishing his credentials in commercials. (“Pocket versions of feature films,” Scott has called them, encapsulating his philosophy of cinema.) A friendship was born, and some years later, director shared with author a newspaper clipping about the phenomena of “garage wines,” 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,” Mayle writes. “They are investments.”

A Good Year offers little return on one’s investment in a ticket, other than the spectacle of Scott misplacing his talents. Uptight and vapid, bursting with spectacular landscapes and virtuoso production design, it cries out for a horde of bloodthirsty Visigoths to fit into his oeuvre.

Categories: Movies