All good directors make at least one really bad film, and considering how quickly Ridley Scott works these days, it was bound to happen sooner or later. After the production problems on Kingdom of Heaven, it only seemed fair that Scott would want to take on something much less ambitious or epic. But in A Good Year, we find both director and star completely out of their depths, handling material which at best plays against their strengths and at worst is completely beneath them.
Things start off in London with an agreeable first ten minutes. Apart from a clichéd shot of the Gherkin (Hollywood's way of reminding us that we are in London), the opening scenes on the trading floor are well-shot and well-played. Even though it's retreading old ground, with Russell Crowe pulling the exact same trick that Dan Aykroyd did in Trading Places, it's directed with a decent enough choice of camera angles to pull us in.
Like all of Scott's films, there is no denying that A Good Year looks fantastic. Where Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven boasted washed-out colour palettes which took you into the heart of a bloody battle, A Good Year is a much more glossy and upbeat affair. The metallic blues and greens of the City of London are contrasted by the golden fields of the French countryside and the whitewashed walls of the chateau. This visual style works especially well in the flashback scenes, with the warm colour schemes helping to generate some sense of affection.
Sadly, however, all this glossy shooting amounts to little more than putting cheap plonk into Champagne bottles, or old wine into new wine skins. Beneath its modern, bang-up-to-date surface, A Good Year is as tired and well-worn as any romantic comedy we've seen in the last ten years. It's trite, clichéd, sappy and contrived - in short, it's not good at all.
The first big problem is with the cast. Albert Finney is the ideal choice for Uncle Henry and Freddie Highmore is pretty convincing at the young Max. But for all his many talents, Russell Crowe simply does not do light romantic comedy. He doesn't have any real comic timing, his English accent frequently wanders into Kiwi, and with his gruff baritone and prominent jawline he's not the most heart-warming screen presence. His portrayal of an eccentric English stock trader wanders very close to caricature both in voice and characterisation: sometimes he's trying to be suave like Cary Grant, sometimes clumsy and lovable like Hugh Grant, and he never gets either of them right.
This problem becomes even more noticeable when Marion Cotillard is introduced. Cotillard is a great actress with real range and a magnetic screen presence, so much so that she often makes even her most formidable co-stars look like rank amateurs. This wasn't such a big deal in Big Fish, because Tim Burton knew how to keep the focus on the central father-son relationship without letting her character be just a cipher. But just as in Nine or Public Enemies, the film feels less dynamic when she isn't on screen, and once you've been introduced you really notice when she's gone.
Because Crowe isn't a natural comic actor, the 'com' elements of this rom-com are played so broadly it's insulting. We get all sorts of highly choreographed pratfalls, such as Max falling face down into the mud at the bottom of the swimming pool, or the running jokes about scorpions entering the house. Scott even resorts to lazy camera tricks to hurry the jokes along, as if he himself didn't have faith in the screenplay. In a typical example, Max is given a Smart City Car to ferry himself around, and Scott speeds up the footage of him driving round and round a roundabout in such a fashion as to drain any enjoyment out of what was already a very simply joke.
Then there is the plot itself, which is incredibly predictable and increasingly unbelievable. Just look at the setup: a cold-hearted but eccentric City trader goes out to a chateau in France with the intentional of selling it and getting on with his life. The shorter, more interesting and most ambitious option would have been to have said character sell the chateau and then go home again. That at least would have been a test of Scott's ability to take an unusual or implausible storyline and make it dramatically interesting.
Instead, A Good Year settles for the same old story of a cold man's heart melting in the warm sun as he realises the meaning of life and the nature of happiness. In order to keep Crowe at the chateau, various sub-plots are introduced which only serve to make the story all the more contrived and convoluted. We might buy the idea of Max being suspended for a week for dodgy trading, but the arguments with Duflot, or the arrival of his cousin, or his relationship with Fanny Chenal, are all structured or invoked in a hotch-potch way. Whenever one element doesn't work or becomes boring, the film randomly picks on another, and when all of them become boring it either resorts to a flashback or a boring montage (and sometimes, as with the tennis match, we get both!).
If we do take the time to focus on the characters, we really struggle to find any of them sympathetic or believable enough for us to invest our time in their travails. Sure, we're hardly in Noah Baumbach territory - we don't find ourselves hating everyone on screen after ten minutes. But it's hard to care about people who are either (a) exceedingly wealthy; (b) incompetent; (c) aimless and happy-go-lucky; or (d) all of the above.
In its defence, A Good Year is at least trying to break free from the rom-com mould, in which the only relationship of note is between the leading stars, making it obvious that they will end up together. But even here it's doesn't have the strength of its convictions, settling for recycled Richard Curtis schmaltz and quirky set-pieces over the comparatively sharp dialogue going on in London. The central relationship between Crowe and Cotillard seems inherently mismatched due to their opposing outlooks on life and money, and the twist about the latter kissing Max when they were children just reeks of a screenwriter running out of ideas.
On top of all this, the film presents a caricatured version of France, in which every native character drinks wine, eats croissants, smokes heavily or works in a café in the centre of town. Luflot and his wife live on a pittance to keep the vineyards going, and yet they are still able to produce a hearty banquet complete with highly expensive brandy. Even the few moments of cross-cultural humour, like Crowe's running jibe about Lance Armstrong to the French cyclists, feel totally lazy and unsophisticated.
A Good Year is a huge misstep for both Scott and Crowe, and is frankly an all-round embarrassment. It is easily Scott's weakest film since Someone to Watch Over Me, and may well be the worst film he has ever made. It's even too annoying to be enjoyed as escapist tosh. The cast give their all and probably got a nice holiday in the process of making this. But for those of us who have to sit through the results of their bonnes vacances, A Good Year leaves a sour taste in the mouth.