Max Skinner is the sort of workaholic London investment banker who is so attached to his cellphone that the idea of taking a holiday seems worse than death.
In “A Good Year,” Ridley Scott’s deeply artificial adaptation of Peter Mayle’s 2004 best-seller, Russell Crowe plays the adult Max as a gleefully selfish manipulator with Enron ethics. He calls his co-workers “lab rats,” he treats women as accessories, and he’s happiest when he’s pulling off an investment scam that just might land him in legal trouble.
But it wasn’t always that way. As a childhood prologue suggests, the young Max (played by the high-spirited Freddie Highmore) must have been the world’s happiest orphan. Spoiled by his extraordinarily indulgent uncle Henry (the shamelessly slumming Albert Finney) who raised him at his Provence chateau, Max spent his summers swimming, cheating at chess and becoming intimate with a cellar stocked with the finest wines.
Like all the scenes set in Provence, these episodes are shot with an intoxicating wide-screen splendor by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, who makes Henry’s estate (including a gorgeous vineyard) look so Eden-like that you can’t imagine how Max could have brought himself to leave the place.
However, Max hasn’t been in contact for years with his uncle, who never created a will after they had a falling-out. When Henry dies, the estate goes to his nearest relative. This means Max, who decides to make a brief visit before selling it. Of course, it’s not that easy.
Overcome by nostalgia, he can’t move anywhere on the estate without thinking of his uncle and the good times they had together. Also prolonging his stay are a couple of headstrong women, including a cousin (apparently Henry’s daughter) played by Abbie Cornish, who may have her own claim on the place. She also fascinates Max’s best friend Charlie (Tom Hollander), who succumbs to Provence almost as completely as Max does.
Plot twists like these were probably designed to keep the familiar storyline from becoming predictable — and to stretch “A Good Year” to two hours. But neither Mayle nor his co-writer, Marc Klein (“Serendipity”), manage to make the complications compelling. There’s a lazy quality to the movie. It’s as if the filmmakers imagined themselves as taking a vacation while they were shooting it.
Scott once guided Crowe to a best-actor Oscar for “Gladiator,” but where’s the magic, not to mention the discipline, this time? Max is supposed to go through a massive internal change, from monster to mensch, yet the transition is invisible. The attempts at comic relief, including tired potshots at boorish American tourists and rude French waiters, don’t help.
Equally disappointing are the supporting performances (the women are mysteriously bland), though Hollander salvages enough of his scenes to make you wish he’d take over the job of playing Max and leave Crowe and Scott to party on.
If you’re looking for an undemanding date movie, “A Good Year” may fill the bill. It’s romantic and pretty, and it works on some level as pure fantasy. Who wouldn’t want to move to Provence under these conditions?