Part of the appeal of Peter Mayle's charming Provence books is that there's so little at stake—no cause to reflect on anything other than the great food and wine, or the loveable eccentrics who populate the French countryside. They're armchair vacations, uncomplicated by melodrama, much less the sour issues of inheritance and privilege. Of course, such slightness won't suffice for a plot-driven feature film, so Mayle and his friend Ridley Scott came up with the idea for A Good Year, which almost entirely siphons the magic out of the place. It's possible that Mayle is suffering from diminishing returns on a well-worn subject, but even his most effervescent work would be spoiled by a story that calls this much attention to extravagant wealth and real-estate values. It's a little like getting the bill before you've finished the meal.
Though he invests every ounce of his considerable charisma in the lead role, Russell Crowe still comes across as a man unworthy of the paradise offered to him. An obscenely successful and widely despised shark in the London financial scene, Crowe gets called away from his busy life by news that his beloved uncle Albert Finney has died, leaving Crowe his French estate. Though Crowe has only the sweetest memories of Finney and the vineyard from childhood, he returns to find the estate in disrepair, with a crumbling façade and a wine cellar full of undrinkable swill. Over the protestations of the longtime caretakers, not to mention his uncle's wishes, Crowe decides to sell the place, but he slowly finds himself seduced anew, especially when he encounters a pretty woman (Marion Cotillard) from his past. Meanwhile, in a disposable bit of intrigue, Finney's illegitimate American daughter (Abbie Cornish) comes looking for him, and Crowe worries that she'll want a share of the estate.
Crowe struggles with what any reasonable person would consider an easy choice: Should he stay in London, where he leads a cold, lonely (albeit lucrative) life and everyone hates him, or move to a heavenly place filled with impossibly beautiful women and delicious repasts throughout the day? The proper response to such an inheritance is "Woo-hoo!" not "Let me think about it," or "What's paradise fetching on the market these days?" During a handful of moments, the setting overwhelms all other concerns, leaving the breezy pleasures of Mayle's Provence to finally come to the fore. If only Crowe's buttoned-down dope took less time to get his head straight, perhaps there would have been more of it.