'A Good Year': But Not A Great One, By Kurt Loder

Drinking with Russell Crowe should be a little more unpredictable than this. Also: The imaginary Diane Arbus of 'Fur.'

"A Good Year" is a movie for a certain sort of person, or at least it would seem to be — a person who loves the South of France. Loves it, that is, in a rosy, yearning kind of way, the way it's portrayed in the books of Peter Mayle, the one-time London ad man who many years back said to hell with it and moved to Provence, a region whose garlicky charms he has been chronicling ever since. Mayle's best-selling books — "A Year in Provence," "Toujours Provence," "Encore Provence" — are madly popular among the sort of people who long to say to hell with it themselves some day, and who thus might be expected to enjoy this movie about a guy who (eventually) does just that.

They may not be swept up by it, however, even though the film is based on a novel Mayle wrote expressly at the behest of director Ridley Scott, who brought in screenwriter Marc Klein to turn the book into a script. That the resulting romantic comedy is pretty much by-the-numbers predictable needn't have prevented it from being light-hearted fun as well, especially with an actor as game as Russell Crowe in the lead. But Crowe is called upon to be comic here — to do slapstick, even — and this is not his strong suit. Watching him try to be lunkishly funny is not fun — he's just not a lunk. It's an amiable picture, and witty in parts; but it never goes anywhere you don't expect it to, and after a while you may start to lose enthusiasm for going along with it.

Crowe plays Max Skinner, an arrogant, crazy-rich London stockbroker. Max is despised by just about everyone who knows him ("They should bury you face down," says his assistant, " 'cause that's where you're going"), and he revels in their envious contempt. The only person Max has ever loved, apart from Max, is his Uncle Henry (played, in a blizzard of flashbacks, by Albert Finney). As a child, Max spent countless carefree summers with Henry at the picturesque wine château he bought after saying to hell with it himself many years earlier and fleeing London for la vie Provençal.

In his obsession with making money, Max fell out of touch with Henry, and he feels an unaccustomed twinge of guilt upon learning one day that his uncle has died, and that Max, as his only known relative, is now the owner of the château. He doesn't even consider the possibility of using the place as a weekend getaway ("I don't do weekends," he says, with workaholic brio), and decides right away to sell it. Once he arrives in Provence to check the property out, though, we know he'll be changing his mind — the reasons start piling up right away. There's the light and the landscape, of course (although Scott hasn't managed to capture these quite as ravishingly as director Audrey Wells did the Italian countryside in the 2003 Diane Lane vehicle, "Under the Tuscan Sun"). And there's the château's salt-of-the-earth wine-maker, Duflot (Didier Bourdon), and his hearty wife, Ludivine (Isabelle Candelier). Best of all, there's the beautiful Fanny Chenal (Marion Cotillard), who owns a breezy little restaurant in the nearby village. Fanny resists Max's brassy charm at first, but we know that can't last long; she holds out for almost one whole date, then succumbs.

On the downside, there's the château's wine, which is abominable. ("It gives you a blinding headache and makes you angry," Max says. "I can't imagine what a second sip does.") Can it be improved? Not by Max, who's an oenological illiterate. There's also competition from a mysterious new "garage wine," which is being turned out in tiny, expensive batches by an unknown local vintner. In addition, there's the unexpected appearance of a California girl named Christie (Abbie Cornish), who has backpacked her way to the château to meet her father, who turns out (or so she says) to have been Uncle Henry, the old dog. In this case, the château would actually belong to her. But Max is starting to grow attached to the place (and to Fanny, of course), although he still can't stomach the château's wine. Fortunately, Christie also turns out to be a "wine brat" from Napa, and thus deeply knowledgeable in the ways of the grape. That sound we hear is the story's inescapable conclusion huffing into view.

As the movie potters along, we get whiffs of oenophilic wisdom ("The wine will always whisper into your mouth") and thuddingly familiar life lessons ("I loved Henry deeply, but I never got around to telling him"). We also get to watch Crowe, in a faux-uproarious scene, windmilling around in the slippery mud at the bottom of a drained swimming pool, failing to be riotously funny for a director who fails to realize it.

Crowe has a slick, sharky style in the early London scenes, where Max is in his urban element. As he sinks into the cozy, sunlit rhythms of château life, we miss that crass spirit. "A Good Year" is one of those rare movies for which a prequel might be made that could be far more entertaining than the original.

"Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus"

This is a unique biopic, a bold attempt by director Steven Shainberg to illuminate the artistry of the late photographer Diane Arbus by installing amid the known facts of her life an entirely invented mental landscape. The movie is distinguished by Nicole Kidman's strong performance as Arbus, and by the rigorous control of color and framing by cinematographer Bill Pope (who shot the "Matrix" films) and the richly detailed production design of Amy Danger (who also designed Shainberg's last feature, the comically provocative "Secretary"). That the picture collapses into near-total absurdity doesn't diminish the daring of its concept, although it certainly calls into question its utility.

As a photojournalist in the 1960s, Diane Arbus created a stark new manner of depicting her many fringe-dwelling subjects. These included strippers, transvestites, midgets, nudists, giants and carnival denizens, and they offered themselves up to Arbus's empathic gaze with a candor that was unaccountably disquieting. "Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience," she once said. "Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats."

The movie begins in 1958. Arbus and her husband, Allan (Ty Burrell), a fashion photographer, are partners in a successful commercial photo business: she styles the models, he takes the pictures. But Diane feels repressed by her subsidiary role in their marriage, and she longs to break free. One day, a strange new neighbor moves in upstairs, a man named Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), whose head is hidden within a baglike knitted mask. Intrigued, Diane makes her way up to his oddly furnished apartment (there's a severed foot, a small bathing pool, a white rabbit). Here, she discovers that Lionel suffers from a disorder called hypertrichosis, and that beneath his mask and his clothing, his body is entirely covered with long, thick hair.

It is at this point, with the introduction of Lionel, that the picture begins tipping over into ridiculousness. This fictitious character seems clearly intended to suggest the elegant brute played by Jean Marais in the famous 1946 film version of "Beauty and the Beast." However, what leaps most quickly to mind, as we watch Lionel padding around his apartment, is the possibility of a previously undiscovered Universal horror movie from that same period: "At Home with the Wolfman." With his liquid eyes and his creamy baritone, Downey projects an air of fur-ball romantic ardor that has to be seen to be hooted at.

From here on, despite the filmmakers' most sincere efforts to keep playing their premise straight, the picture dribbles downhill. Lionel starts taking Diane out — by bus, by subway, wearing his mask and a pair of purple gloves — to meet his fellow social outcasts. There are Siamese twins, pot-smoking midgets, a whip-wielding dominatrix and an armless woman who plays the cello with her foot (a startling accomplishment). "This is terrific," Diane says. "I thought you'd like it," Lionel purrs. Inevitably, Diane enters Lionel's apartment one night to find him waiting for her with a pair of scissors, a bowl of water and a razor. The scene that follows — and the scenes that follow that, and then the big sex scene, and, oh Lord, the gaudy wind-up on a desolate beach — are of a perversity so untethered that the only reasonable response is laughter.

And yet nothing in the movie is as disturbingly strange as the photographs of Diane Arbus, who committed suicide in 1971. Her powers of human witness were uncanny. Eighty of her most psychically resonant photos are collected in the classic "Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph," which can be purchased for approximately the cost of four tickets to see "Fur." It's a more rewarding expenditure.

Check out everything we've got on "A Good Year" and "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus."

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