Friday, August 22, 2008

Not Phony Enough

I’ve recently returned to Los Feliz after spending a week in Bethesda visiting family. Of course, I’m from New York but no one’s there anymore and Maryland is where my sister went. You may of course remember Bethesda from being mentioned when Homer Simpson met Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, who had just moved to Springfield because of how phony Hollywood had gotten. Homer: Why not try some place like Bethesda? Alec: Not phony enough. So I spent nearly a week in that place that isn’t phony enough, enjoying delicious food & drink, as well as having a great time with family members. Sightseeing in D.C was limited to visits to the Natural History Museum and the National Cathedral, the latter I was familiar with mostly from being used for Mrs. Landingham’s funeral on THE WEST WING. That was it for the D.C. area but there’s not much there that I haven’t already seen. After all, I’ve climbed the steps from THE EXORCIST in Georgetown (no way Jason Miller could ever make that jump) so it’s not like there’s much to do in the town after that. The nights I spent eating delicious food inspired me to look for a movie to bring with me that would go with the atmosphere. For some reason, Ridley Scott’s box office flop A GOOD YEAR jumped out at me. I missed it in the theater, it didn’t make much of an impression when I rented it, but whenever I flipped past it on cable I found myself sticking around for a few minutes, maybe hoping to soak in some of that luxurious atmosphere brought on by all that wine, not to mention Marion Cotillard. I think I picked up a cheap used copy once almost on impulse. As it turns out, I think it’s one of those movies that plays best when you only watch it in small doses.

Russell Crowe is London investment banker Max Skinner who, in the midst of his latest financial triumph, receives word that his Uncle Henry (played in flashback by Albert Finney), owner of a vineyard in Provence, has recently died. Since he is Henry’s only living relative and therefore the beneficiary of the estate, Max travels to Provence to quickly unload it. After arriving at the vineyard for the first time in years, he finds the place in disrepair, producing undrinkable wine, yet Max soon finds himself enchanted by…well, you see where all this is going, I’m sure.

The film tanked when it opened in Novemeber of ’06—if they couldn’t even get me to see it, they were definitely in trouble. The gist of the criticism seems to be that Scott and Crowe were the wrong guys for such a lighthearted tale and I have to agree with that. By all accounts Scott lives in the area where this was shot, so he probably wanted to make a film close to home. That’s nice and all and while it’s obviously a good-looking film it gives me the nagging feeling that it’s clearly made by somebody who already knows these surroundings. A director who has a visual eye but is unfamiliar with these surroundings might be interested in exploring them. Scott seems merely content to put it all on film and while we get the expected picture postcard shots of vistas they’re never all that interesting. The London stuff, photographed in the most stark, metallic way imaginable outside of a futuristic sci-fi film, actually works visually. But the basic Ridley Scott style is now is all wrong for this anyway. Right at the start there’s an ultra-hyper Steadicam shot swooping around Freddie Highmore (playing the young version of Crowe) and the heavy AVID cutting that occurs throughout is constantly too much for the laid-back vibe the movie wants to project (a scene in a crowded restaurant seems to have as many edits as a fight scene would in another Scott film). It never feels like there’s any breathing room, a point where Crowe could relax for a minute, look around at his surroundings and just be. A scene where he takes Marion Cotillard, playing a local woman he falls for, out to dinner at an elaborate outdoor setting should be able to provide a genuine romantic feel but the movie seems to want to keep going non-stop, intercutting it with another scene and never giving us a chance to take a whiff of the atmosphere. And any attempts at bringing comedy into the mix, from a funny little rental car Crowe drives to a funny dog, just feels like serious people trying to prove how funny they can be.

There’s also the essential problem with how little drama there is here. Ultimately, the choice Crowe’s character has to make boils down to being a rich investment banker (which means losing his soul, but whatever) or living on a wine estate in the south of France (if he had to decide being an investment banker or helping starving children in Africa, that might present some drama). Maybe this sort of fantasy, this type of phoniness, was easier to pull off back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, but certainly somebody could probably do something with this story. These just aren’t the guys. Russell Crowe’s character is a prick from start to finish and when he says, “I can’t for the life of me think of why I stopped coming down here. I love this place. It’s intoxicating,” the actor sells the potentially sappy moment maybe better than anyone else these days could, yet I still don’t care. I’ve only seen bits of the Diane Lane vehicle UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN, which seems like a similar thing, but I can imagine actually caring what happens to her. With Russell Crowe, that never happens—it also bugs me how he’s always unshaven, but maybe that’s just me. Anyway, he doesn’t wind up with Marion Cotillard for any reason other than that he’s Russell Crowe and he has a vineyard. Thanks, that gives me a lot of hope for my own romantic possibilities. The plot also contains elements of secret letters, mysterious wines and stock trading intrigue, but I can’t bring myself to have much interest. For a movie that should be ideal to view while on vacation, A GOOD YEAR just made me impatient and frustrated. Late one night, after a delicious dinner, I sat down with my sister and her husband to watch an episode of “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” in which the host traveled around Spain eating delicious food and the presentation managed to do for me what this film never did. I’ll have to remember to watch that show again.

At least there’s Marion Cotillard, even though she doesn’t have as much screentime as I’d like and the film’s attempt to convince me that she and Crowe are the same age is unconvincing, to put it mildly. Even better is Archie Panjabi as Crowe’s loyal Girl Friday, who offers a spark that allows her to sneakily walk away with the film. When she turns up again after being offscreen for a long period it’s a big relief. Since the movie lets her have the button as the credits role, I suspect Ridley Scott knew this as well. Several actors from HOT FUZZ also turn up in the London sections, but I’d rather just think of them as actors who were in HOT FUZZ.

Overall, Bethesda was wonderful, with one of the highlights being how I got to spend some time lying in a hammock, staring up at the trees, content to be with nothing but my thoughts for a brief period of time. A GOOD YEAR may not work, but it wasn’t bad enough to mess with that. I’m back now, ready to enjoy the weekend here in L.A. and continue to relax. Because I know that feeling is going to end soon enough.

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