Ethically challenged business gladiator Max Skinner is enjoying the London high life. After all, he's just led his company's team of bond traders through a masterful—and legally questionable—financial maneuver that nets his firm millions of dollars. His real friends are few, but he luxuriates in the jealousy of this rivals and the adoration of his underlings. Then he learns that his Uncle Henry, his only living relative, has died at the French chateau and winery where he's lived for 30 years.
In a series of halcyon flashbacks, we watch a 12-or-so-year-old version of Max spending time with Uncle Henry at the chateau during long visits after the death of Max's parents. Though he drifted away from the warm and worldly Henry over the years in his quest for financial domination, Max remembers his times at the small winery as the best of his life. Returning now, however, to claim the estate, Max announces his plans to sell the charming place, especially when he realizes the quality of the wine has devolved to the level of vinegar.
At first unmoved by the objections of vine-tender Francis Duflot and his gregarious wife/housekeeper Ludivine—the couple who also cared for the place when Max was a boy—Max speeds his efforts to unload the property when a young woman from America shows up claiming to be Henry's illegitimate daughter (and possible legal heir). But then Max's fond memories of his quotable, "good life"-loving Uncle Henry and his newfound affection for a local beauty slowly begin to erode his resolve to leave the Provencal lifestyle behind.
The film reveals Max's tendency to cheat his way to success as both unethical and ultimately unsatisfying (though he experiences few actual negative consequences). We learn that Uncle Henry became disappointed in Max's fixation on making money and winning at all costs. In a flashback, Henry encourages young Max to celebrate his failures as a source of wisdom and to learn to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Max eventually sees the value in that advice.
Part of Max's big-city lifestyle includes bedding beautiful women. And he questions whether it would be wrong to have sex with Christie, 19, his newfound cousin. A nude woman is very briefly glimpsed in a porn magazine. And many of the film's females bare cleavage.
When Christie wears a small bikini by the pool and gets a bad sunburn, she allows Max's eager best friend, Charlie, to treat her by applying ice to her bare back. The camera follows his gaze under her towel as the top of her rear is seen.
At a dinner party, a crude joke is made about sodomy. Max is attracted to local girl Fanny, who lifts her skirt in public to show him a large bruise on her hip and backside. Upon seeing this display, male bystanders applaud. Max and Fanny end up going to bed together. (They partially undress each other.)
In search of comedy, A Good Year includes plenty of pratfalls, mishaps and accidents as Max falls over, through and down various props and bits of landscape. In his car he unknowingly runs a woman on a bicycle off the road while fumbling with his phone. He also falls into a swimming pool, empty expect for manure, and is pummeled by jets of water unleashed to fill it up.
Crude or Profane Language
In addition to a few misuses of the names "Jesus," "Christ" and "God," the f-word is heard at least once and the s-word is exclaimed better than a dozen times. The British profanities "bloody," "b-gger," "w-nker," "s-d" and "b-llocks" are heard, as is the sexual euphemism "shag." "B--tard" and "a--" are also casually tossed around.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Most of the story unfolds at a French winery, and all of the characters drink. In flashbacks, Uncle Henry is seen drinking lots of wine and is known to get drunk. He schools young Max in the ways of winemaking and gives him wine to drink (though he waters it down a little). Older Max regularly drinks harder stuff. At a dinner party, several of the attendees get drunk, including one who can't quite walk home. Pipes and cigars make appearances.
Other Negative Elements
Max, young and old, is a liar and a cheat. As mentioned in "Positive Elements," that's mostly cast in a negative light. However, he is seemingly rewarded for his biggest ethical compromise. And even when he chooses to do something noble for his cousin, he needlessly uses deception to accomplish it.
While watching A Good Year, I was reminded just how skillful director Ridley Scott is at crafting heart-pounding action/adventure tales and how adept star Russell Crowe is at creating unforgettably intense and complicated characters. By their bodies of work (which include Kingdom of Heaven, A Beautiful Mind, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and Hannibal), neither strikes you as the kind of a guy who enjoys a lightweight, heartfelt, slapstick-infused romantic comedy. And judging from this effort, they're not the kind of guys who can make a very good one.
At every moment, you can feel them laboring to create a breezy atmosphere to match the languid beauty of their Provence backdrop. But they just don't seem to have it in them. Crowe, especially, can't convincingly dim that famous intensity. His attempts at being a charming, clumsy rascal feel like those of a workaholic dad spending a day off with the kids. Yeah, he's here goofing around with us, but you can tell his heart is still back at the office emoting about something dark and weighty.
It's not just Crowe. The storyline is as predictable as a commuter flight on a clear night; you can see that landing strip coming for miles and miles. Moments of dialogue meant to convey profound meaning clunk so loudly I worried folks in the theater next door would be distracted from their film. Then I wondered what they were watching. Then I wanted to go and see.
Thus, I began pondering what A Good Year might have looked like as a straightforward drama about a man forced to reevaluate all his morality-free, self-serving instincts and the life of singular isolation they've yielded for him. Throw in one pivotal, rain-soaked action scene, and that's a movie the Scott/Crowe team could make compelling.
Instead, for the sake of lightheartedness, they lower the stakes to the point where it's tough to care what choices Crowe's character makes. The isolated, achievement-driven London high life or the more relational, sensual French country life? Either way, it's all about what will make Max most happy. Neither choice requires real sacrifice. And that's the story's biggest problem. It wants us to see the good life as the one spent soaking up pleasure and community and beauty. Better, maybe, but in the end just a different brand of hedonism apart from selfless service of others.
Will Max ever go searching for deeper meaning outside of himself or will he just repeat his Uncle Henry's equally empty (though more attractive) life of wine, women and song? Maybe Crowe and Scott can answer that question in an action/adventure sequel.