A film review by Craig J. Koban

VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA jjj

2008, PG-13, 96 mins.

Juan Antonio: Javier Bardem / Vicky: Rebecca Hall / Cristina: Scarlett Johansson / Maria Elena: Penelope Cruz / Doug: Chris Messina / Judy Nash: Patricia Clarkson / Mark Nash: Kevin Dunn

Written and directed by Woody Allen

“We are meant for each other and not meant for each other.  It's a contradiction.”

- Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) in "VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA"

Has Woody Allen past the prime of his filmmaking career?  Absolutely.   The finest efforts of this 72-year-old’s resume are most assuredly behind him now.  His last truly great film was released over a decade ago in 1996’s sublimely entertaining musical comedy EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU.  His other grand achievements occurred even earlier with masterpieces like CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (his finest hour), HANNA AND HER SISTERS, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, and, of course, ANNIE HALL.   

Many feel that he made a comeback in the form of 2005’s MATCH POINT, an overrated effort in my mind that was essentially Allen ripping off himself (it was a thinly veiled MISDEMEANORS-redux).  2004’s MELINDA AND MELINDA, a chronically overlooked Allen film, was arguably his finest dramedy in years, which contained all of the typical Allenian flavor, but it also managed to ruminate on the filmmaker’s own inner conflicts with what tone best suits telling a story: comedy or tragedy.  I so thoroughly enjoyed MELINDA AND MELINDA that I thought we were reaching the second coming of the 21-time Oscar nominated filmmaker.  Unfortunately, along came the sorrowfully mediocre SCOOP and CASSANDRA’S DREAM, which all but stunted my enthusiasm. 

Now, to be positive, I have always gone on record to say that Allen has never made a truly bad film.  He has, to his credit, made some of the most crucial and integral films of the last three decades of American cinema.  However, Allen, both past and present, remains an acquired taste for most lay moviegoers.  He certainly has made great and important films, but for everyone of those came some notably lesser and more forgettable works.   

VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA is both a return to pure form a fairly nice change of venue for the writer/director.  The themes explored here have seen the light of day in many of his past films: sexual triangulations, obsessively low key neurotic characters that incessantly question everything, reflections on the nature of love and marriage, and the often emotionally tortuous meeting ground between happiness and pathos.  The characters in the film, like most other Allen efforts, are fiercely individualistic, affluent, socially sophisticated in one form or another and cavort around in their daily lives that we envy to the point of wanting to have.  The characters are also conflicted about right and wrong and, more crucially, about what love means.  All of this is intertwined with Allen's trademark pithy, acerbic, and razor sharp dialogue where the words that come out of characters’ mouths account for something more than advancing the story. 

So, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (or VCB, everything now is an acronym, it seems) is another lively and easily digestible romantic dramedy farce that Allen is capable of with confident fluency (these types of films always maintain such a contagious enthusiasm for the material).  What’s new here is that Allen continues on with abandoning New York as his geographical muse and instead lets his eye get captivated by the beauty of the Mediterranean Coast.  VCB marks Allen’s forth film shot outside the US, but instead of using London as a backdrop again, he now incorporates the lush and luxurious Barcelona.  On a level of a visually opulent travelogue picture, VCB shows off Allen’s loving eye for two natural beauties: Barcelonan architecture and sights…and Scarlet Johanssons’ ample bosom. 

It is Allen’s newfangled preoccupation with the beauty of Europe that has invigorated new life into his films, which still are ripe with familiar staple elements of his better past works.  One a more pleasant, eye candy level, this is undoubtedly his most sexy and discretely erotic film ever, thanks in large part to the film’s offering of beautiful leading ladies…and one handsome man.  We are introduced to two young women in their early twenties in the beginning; two best friends named Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Allen’s new muse, Scarlet Johansson), who both decide to spend the summer in Barcelona at the home of Vicky’s relatives, Judy and Mark (Patricia Clarkson, aging gracefully, and Kevin Dunn).  An omnipotent and unseen narrator (more on that later) keeps us up to date on nature of the women and where their sensibilities reside.  Vicky is the staunch pragmatist of the pair and analyzes everything to the minutest detail.  She also is a frank believer in monogamy (she is about to be wed to Doug – played by Chris Messina – when she returns home).  Cristina, on the other hand, is the exact opposite:  she’s impulsive, naïve, and cheerfully flirts with the unfamiliar. 

Chance and the “unfamiliar” steps into the ladies’ lives and changes them forever.  One day while attending an art show Christina locks glances with a sullen eyed Spanish hunk named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, looking much more ruggedly charismatic and woman-friendly here than he did with his horribly mulleted killer in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN).  Juan’s intoxicating, Rasputin-like stare captivates Cristina: she must know who this guy is.  Both the audience and her discover that he is an acclaimed abstract artist surrounded by controversy over the relationship he had with his semi-estranged ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who may have tried to murder him…or vice versa.  Needless to say, the impulsive Cristina is instantly smitten. 

Later that evening Cristina and Vicky are in a restaurant where they meet up with the mysterious and enigmatic Juan.  What occurs here is one of the best-written pick up scenes in a long time.  Cristina can’t stop staring at Juan from across the room, much to Vicky’s consternation, so much so that Juan makes his way over to their table.  He approaches the pair and very quietly, very frankly, and very politely asks them if they would like to get on a plane with him, go for some great sightseeing, and later go back to an extravagant hotel for some three-way sex. 

What’s interesting here is that Juan is not a lecherous fiend:  He is so mild-mannered and so precisely gracious and courteous that it sure is hard to scorn him.  Cristina, being very liberal minded, jumps at the chance to see Spain with an alluringly handsome man, but Vicky, on the other hand, is defensively conservative and thinks that hooking up with a complete stranger is silly.  Nevertheless, there would be no movie if the pair did not go, and they do accompany him on a plane to catch the best that Spain has to offer.  Sex does not occur instantly.  Predictably, both women find it increasingly difficult to not fall under Juan’s spell, which all but plagues Vicky, seeing as she is such a self-controlled woman that has a dreadfully hard time coming to grips with the fact that she has fallen head over heels for Juan.  Things get even more thorny for the trio of lovers when Vicky’s fiancé arrives and asks her to get married in Spain and, worst of all, Juan’s crazed ex-wife, Maria Elena, shows up on the scene to make life truly miserable for all involved. 

There are not one, not two, but three great Oscar-nomination worthy performances in VCB, and the first would be Javier Bardem’s tricky role as the romantic womanizer that, at face value, is not nearly as sleazy and scummy as you would think.  In a lesser actor’s hands Juan would have disintegrated into lustful Latin stereotypes, but Bardem breaks those down by infusing his soulful artist with a real sensitivity and passion:  Oddly enough, he cares for all of the women around him, even the most destructive ones, and genuinely reveres their feelings, attitudes, and beliefs.  He also wants to being the best out of the women he meets and does not simply want to use them as sex toys.  Juan is also a textured character in the manner that he – like the female characters – struggles with the nature of relationships and love.  He is a curiously inquisitive and self-doubting figure in the film.

There are two real standout performances here, though, and they easily lie with Penelope Cruz and newcomer Rebecca Hall.  If anything, Hall’s deeply heartfelt and intelligent portrayal of the conflicted Vicky reveals a major actress in the making.  She is more than secure handling moments that involve that punchy, witty, and wordy Allen written diatribes (the same can’t be can’t be said for Johansson), but she also does a virtuoso job of encapsulating Vicky’s steadfast convictions and defensiveness early on while later showing her ever-growing insecurities and nervous energy.  This is a woman that becomes trapped by her desires: she thinks she wants to have a stable marriage to Doug, but Juan awakens her out of the sense of complacency she has about idealized love.  Hall’s work is searing, touching and poignant: it’s a real star-making turn. 

And then there is emotive, tense, deeply sensual and barmy Penelope Cruz, who - alongside her Oscar nominated work in VOLVER - drives head-on into inhabiting her role as Maria Elena with a feverous glee and enrapturing tenacity.  Her performance here is a conglomeration of both suppressed and extroverted sexual animalism and antagonism with deeply wounded pride.  She still loves Juan with a real fervor, and Juan, at times, feels the same.  Alas, the two are both endlessly compatible and have no business being together, which is all but compounded by the arrival of the two other women.  Cruz’s nail-biting and edgy performance is a real scorcher, and her intense and powerful scenes with Bardem – where they lash out at each other while schizophrenically jumping between Latin and English – absolute ignites the screen. 

VCB is far from letter perfect.  As mush as I liked almost all of the lead actors here, Scarlet Johansson still seems just as out of place in a Woody Allen film as she did in his previous works.  Her attempts at playing up to his requisite rapid-fire comic dialogue and phobic personalities grounded SCOOP to a halt.  She seems more relaxed here in VCB, but her presence is all window dressing compared to the effectively naturalistic performance by Rebecca Hall, who she shares the screen with most of the time (Hall’s easy-going screen presence and rhythmic comic timing makes Johansson appear all the more wooden by comparison).   If anything, Allen could do better by dropping Johansson out of future pictures: she’s an improper fit to his film universe.  On a further character issue, Allen’s handling of Vicky’s fiancé falls into the trap of making him bland and puerile when compared to Juan, which is supposed to lazily make us want Vicky to dump him for the artistic Spaniard.  When will films like this realize that the more compelling choice would be to personify Doug beyond that of a clichéd-ridden doofus-loser to cheaply inspire our dislike of him? 

Worst of all, VCB is almost completely undone by a teeth-gratingly unnecessary voice-over narration (done in with a flat timbered enunciation by Christopher Even Welch) that just may be one of the most needless voice-overs in recent film history.  This is the closet I’ve experienced watching a movie in a theatre with what felt like a really dry and uninspired DVD audio commentary track.  Oftentimes, voice-overs or characters breaking the cinematic fourth wall can be inspired and lively, but Allen’s exceedingly preposterous use of voice over here – which serves as nothing more than to comment on the obvious – makes VCB oftentimes frustrating to sit through.  It's Allen at his most prosaic...and perhaps lazy.

In the end, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA is neither the best of Woody Allen, nor is it in the dubious league of his least beguiling efforts.  Instead, the film occupies a fairly solid middle ground.  The film has abundant warmth, charm, and comic intrigue, not to mention that it paints most of the characters in eloquently realized stokes.  The performances by Bardem and especially by Cruz and the wonderful Hall steal every moment of the film, not to mention the extraordinary beauty that Allen appropriately gives to his European locales with their splendid art and architecture: this film can simply be appreciated on the level of a fetching travelogue picture.  Perhaps most important, VCB hones in on the solid staples of Allen’s repertoire, which would be the merging of comic, dramatic, and tragic impulses.  This is far from being one of Allen’s finest films, but it still emerges as an agreeably feisty, funny, compassionate, and entertaining diversion.  

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