Russell Crowe will always be Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and a loyal servant to the TRUE emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Yes, Crowe's most memorable performance for me will always be from 2000's Gladiator. That said, he's one of my favorites across the board, and I'll watch him in just about anything. How about Crowe and a frequent collaborator stepping outside their comfort zone? I believe that 2006's A Good Year most definitely qualifies.
A highly successful investment broker in London, Max Skinner (Crowe) is the best at what he does. He's cutthroat and brutally efficient and is coming off one deal -- however shady -- that earned the firm millions and millions of dollars. It's not soon after though that Max receives news that his Uncle Henry (Albert Finney), who he hasn't seen in 10 years, has passed away. The problem? Henry left no will, leaving his French villa and vineyards up for grabs. As Henry's only known living resume, Max must handle the villa, deciding whether he wants to sell it (likely) or keep it (far less likely). Max heads off to France to wrap things up while some work issues are settled behind him, but it's been awhile. He spent his summers with Henry at the villa as a child and hasn't been back in years, much less thought about it too much. Now, it all comes flowing back at him in a wave. What to do? What to do?!?
'Year' pairs Crowe with director Ridley Scott who he worked with previously in Gladiator, a pairing that earned Crowe the Best Actor Oscar and Scott a Best Director nomination. They've also worked together on Body of Lies, American Gangster and Robin Hood so naturally they've got to mix in a quasi-romantic comedy for dudes about a male character having a mid-life awakening of sorts. That makes sense, right? Right?!? I didn't think so, but there was too much talent involved to pass it up. I had to at least give it a try.
Reviews seemed to be mixed here. Movie reviewers disliked to hated it. Everyone else? Liked it to loved it. I'm in the latter group! I very much enjoyed this change of pace story from Scott and Crowe. Sure, there are parts that make you think of like-minded movies with Julia Roberts or Diane Lane, but there's something oddly refreshing about a straightforward story about a male character that doesn't involve gunfire, explosions, nudity, a drug war and all sorts of pyrotechnics. 'Year' is fairly predictable when things really get going, but I immensely liked it.
Crowe especially looks to be having a good time as Max Skinner, a Londoner transplanted to the French countryside where he finds a life that's a complete 180 from his own. Not playing the all-that-is-man warrior lead, Crowe has fun as the smarmy, condescending Skinner (or if I was less crude, an asshole) who thinks he's better than anyone and everyone around him. It is definitely a departure but a pro like Crowe handles it with ease. Obviously, it doesn't hurt that even when he's in full-on condescension mode that Crowe is an immensely likable character. Even when he's being a bit of a d-bag, there's still a charm on display. He gets a crack at some more comedic moments and some physical humor, committing to the part and truly having some fun with it. If he didn't, the movie would have sunk immediately.
Top to bottom, I liked the cast. Sure, at times things are drawn in pretty broad strokes, but you're enjoying things too much to question it or complain too much. Marion Cotillard is an excellent choice to play a French goddess, a beautiful, fiery woman named...Fanny Chenal. Abbie Cornish plays Christie, a young American woman who shows up at the villa with a surprise while Didier Bourdon plays Francis Duflot, the villa's vigneron who looks after the soil and the grape vines with Isabelle Candelier as his wife. I especially liked Tom Hollander as Charlie, one of Max's few friends who tolerates all his little eccentricities (some would say straight Meanness) and his real estate agent. Archie Panjabi has some fun as Gemma, Max's assistant who knows how to handle her crazy boss. The best supporting parts though are Albert Finney as Uncle Henry and Freddie Highmore as a much younger Max. In some quick, character-affirming scenes, we see Max growing up in his summer months under Henry's tutelage. Some very charming scenes, Finney and Highmore with a great chemistry.
And last but not least, the French countryside, maybe the most important character of all. Scott's film could be a travel guide for why to travel to France. This is a story that wants and needs you to move to France, to embrace the lifestyle and general outlook on life. The expansive villas, the tree-lined roads, the stone streets, the history, the look, the food and the wine, this is an incredibly beautiful movie. It ain't subtle either in portraying washed-out dreary London as opposed to homey, earthy, colorful France. If you absolutely hate the characters or the story, just sit back and take in all the Frenchness. You will definitely not be disappointed. A very pleasant surprise so don't listen to all those movie reviewers! Oh, wait...listen to me but not them! I really liked this one and hope you will too. If you can't find me, there's a good chance I moved to France.
A Good Year (2006): ***/****