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A Good Year

Like pure corn liquor poured into a fancy wine bottle, Ridley Scott's lush adaptation of Peter Mayle's novel about a ruthless London commodities trader who finds his soul in Provence is broad, hackneyed and stultifyingly predictable. Appropriately named Max Skinner (Russell Crowe) is an investment expert, the kind of trader for whom making money is a blood sport to be enjoyed like a fine wine — gentlemen's agreements about ethics and market manipulation be damned. Max's life suddenly heads south when he receives word that his Uncle Henry (Albert Finney), an English expatriate who lived much of his life as a gentleman vintner on his Provencal estate, has died. Uncle Henry was perhaps the only person Max every really loved — Max's parents died when he was a boy, and Max would spend golden summers in Provence — but he hadn't seen or spoken to his uncle in over 20 years. Since Uncle Henry hasn't left a valid updated will, Max has become the sole beneficiary of his estate, vines, wines and all. Max's unsentimental plan is to fly to the south of France and sell off the picturesquely crumbling estate as soon as possible, but he's waylaid in Provence by unbidden memories of a happy youth (Freddie Highmore plays the young Max in golden-hazed flashbacks) and by a series of unforeseen events. The chateau is a ruin, and, despite the loving care shown to the grapes by Uncle Henry's vigneron (Didier Bourdon), the wine is undrinkable — two factors which Max's friend and real-estate agent (Tom Hollander) warns will seriously drive down the market price. And while Max's last bit of market trickery netted him a tidy sum somewhere in the millions, it's also put his firm under investigation and Max on an involuntary vacation. Then, of course, there are les femmes: Fanny Chenal (Marion Cottilard), a waitress at a local cafe who has caught Max's eye, and Christie Roberts (Abbie Cornish), a California blonde who arrives from the States claiming to be Uncle Henry's illegitimate daughter. There's also a mystery involving precious bottles of a boutique wine. They've been passed around among serious collectors for years, and no one seems to know where they came from, but the solution to the mystery is just as predictable as everything else in this slim romantic comedy. It's gorgeous to look at — Scott and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd manage to capture the travelogue quality that makes Mayle's books so popular among armchair travelers — and it's a smart career choice for the intense, notoriously ill-tempered Crowe, who's actually quite good at fizzy comedy. (It helps that he's playing a bounder.) But all that beauty is really only skin-deep: The film never sees fit to acknowledge the fact that the only way Max could ever afford to savor the "simple" life in the south of France and turn his back on all that filthy lucre is to have made a ton of it in the first place.