A Good Year: The Quiet Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott gem

Welcome to the midnight movie parlor temptation, where important sleep disappears and minds drift into the land of weird television. There are times when the bed never calls and the couch always has a bottle of whiskey and a barstool ready for you to put a dent into, and that is when midnight movie temptations come into play. The movies you’d never watch during prime time but somehow get sucked into like an average interpretation of Poltergeist in the middle of the night. For me this week, it was the forgotten Russell Crowe-Ridley Scott French estate fairy tale romance, A Good Year.

I know what you are probably thinking, what Ridley and Russell movie? If it doesn’t involve Leonardo DiCaprio and espionage or swords and sandals, people have deleted it from their minds. When the film came out in the award primed season of November, 2006, audiences were expecting a follow up album to Crowe/Scott’s Joshua Tree, which was the critically acclaimed and beloved Gladiator. It won Oscars, got Johnny Cash’s attention and made Crowe a full fledged movie star. Everything the duo did afterwards would be dissected, torn apart and sold for scraps after being compared to Gladiator. Short attention spans run as wild in Hollywood as they do among sports fans at the start of a season. Scott and Crowe had some fun throwing off their handpicked fanbase with this light roast flick. Let me fire a little plot refresher at your head as the second cup of coffee downloads into my system.

Crowe plays Max, a pampered British banker whose uncle(Albert Finney) dies and leaves dear Max his vintage French estate. Once upon a time, Max had great times with his uncle on his estate and seizes a chance to relive those memories and regain a piece of his innocence back along with falling for hot French babe, Marion Cottilard(before she became a household name). If you aren’t snoozing by now, Max also gets to deal with the vineyard workers who beg him to not sell the place and instead live in it and let it reshape his life. What follows is a smooth fish out of water tale that gathers steam as it gathers a running time.

Crowe is as versatile as it gets. He could play the missing person on the back of a milk carton and steal scenes with his stare alone. He can captivate without drowning the audience in tonally crippling monologues or moving around excessively. Take the scene where he is driving through the country side of France trying to find his uncle’s place. Feverishly working a 2006 smart phone(think post Blackberry, the tall one with the antenna that meant I’m smart and sophisticated and not just a broker), Max is driving a smart car around the hills flicking off the French Bike Team and ripping his assistant(Archie Panjabi from The Good Wife) while getting abused by the foreign language GPS system. We’ve all been there and sweated feverishly in a new environment driving a new car with a horrible GPS.

By the time he arrives on the estate, pisses off the locals, threw up the wine, and falls into the pool, Max has lowered himself to common place expectations and Crowe makes the material sing here. The audience sees Max unwinding and becoming that kid again that used to have a blast. The movie never slows down or becomes comfortable in one speed, which is important for late night viewing because that remote control in your right hand will be like a lightsaber.

Screenwriter Marc Klein wisely intercuts the modern day events with flashbacks using Freddie Highmore as a young Max and several doses of the timeless Finney, working his magic here as the cool Uncle who shaped our young man as a boy. It’s all warm and fuzzy and digests like a well cooked cheeseburger.

It also includes the greatest most unheard of cinematic tennis match between Crowe’s Max and the vineyard worker who despises him. Things get broken, tempers flare, and it actually looks like actors played tennis. Most times in movies, the tennis is heightened by special effects and it’s painfully clear from the viewer’s standpoint(Two Weeks Notice with Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock for example). This entertaining and comedic clash is assisted by the timeless Harry Nilsson tune, “Jump Into The Fire”(the Goodfellas song where a paranoid Henry drives around moving guns and drugs). It isn’t a gimmick but a statement score between two men who don’t care for each other and decide to settle the grudge through tennis.

Scott isn’t stupid enough to shelter the plot inside the Chateau and lets the beautiful locale do most of the talking. His camera simply has sex with the most beautiful countrysides of France you will ever see on film. When in France, you film the hell out of it and never let it sleep. The locale serves as a best supporting player here who never gets lost in the ensemble. The wine, cheese and French cuisine are featured prominently as well. This movie will make you hungry so pop up a bottle of Cabernet and unwrap that Gouda cheese before you hit play. When Max starts eating, so will you.

The movie never gets heavy either, which is important for a midnight delight. What audiences DO NOT need in the middle of the night is a sweet little light French getaway film getting overcome with emotion and sappy cinematic corn syrup. The mood is classy and romantic but never overly dramatic throughout.

Why would you not watch A Good Year around 7pm when you get off work, make dinner and get comfortable on the couch? It’s not exactly an attention grabbing film. You need to be paralyzed somewhat on the couch in order for this film to wax over you and keep you there. It doesn’t have the memorable diner face off between Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro that Heat had or the memorably funny scene like the entire first half of Wedding Crashers. Crowe and Scott’s little engine needs the sweet special midnight love like the grapes in the film’s vineyard need a certain appreciation.

For me, it was my late grandmother that came to my mind during this film. She loved wine, adored the French, loved people in general, spoke the language and would have reshaped our poor Max inside 20 minutes on screen with her time warping tales and arm grabbing astute knowledge. She weighed 100 pounds but could slay a bottle of dry red, make you a cuppa coffee that carried the strength of an ox, and talk your head off. She would have fit perfectly into this world Scott and Klein created from Peter Mayle’s novel(as unknown as the movie itself). Sometimes, a memory attaches us to films in ways we can’t see coming. That’s the real beauty of movie magic.

So, the next time you are drifting around midnight and sleep isn’t an option, find A Good Year and escape from your lumpy apartment for a couple hours and explore France with Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott. It may not be their A-game but it’s a nice and easy B-side disc to enjoy if the time and mood is right.

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