Doodad Kind of Town

"Vicky Christina Barcelona"
August 17, 2008, 6:51 pm
Filed under: Woody Allen

Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are the best things to happen to Woody Allen in years.

By now you may have heard that “Vicky Christina Barcelona” is the best Woody Allen movie in 20 years. Even if that were true (to my mind, both “Bullets over Broadway” and “Small Time Crooks” would easily best this one), it’d be damnation with faint praise at best. Pretty much everything here except Bardem and Cruz amounts to the same pretentious twaddle that Allen’s been dishing out for years, only wrapped up so prettily that you might not notice.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johannson) are two graduate students spending a summer in Spain. Vicky, the more grounded and conventional of the two, is researching her thesis on Catalan identity. (There was an awkward moment when several members of our Saturday night audience giggled over this revelation, apparently understanding her to be researching “Cattle and Identity.” Which sounds like a vintage Allen joke and could have set up a much funnier film to come.) Christina, by contrast, is a restless, artsy free spirit, who hasn’t found out what she wants from life or love, “but knows what she doesn’t want.”

We know these things because the film’s narrator tells us so. At great and uninspiring length. I’m no fan of voiceover narration; nine times out of ten, it’s an indication of lazy filmmaking. A good director and good actors should be able to show us what the characters are thinking and feeling, and not resort to spelling it out for us. And the narration in “Vicky Christina Barcelona” does not justify itself. At one point, while we watch Bardem hurrying out to his car in darkness, the narrator unhelpfully adds, “Juan Antonio hurried out in the dead of night.” Well, duh.

But back to our story. Bardem plays a hunky Spanish painter who approaches our two heroines in a restaurant one evening and invites them to come away with him for a weekend of sightseeing and hanky-panky. Vicky, because she’s the grounded one who’s engaged to a stolid young stockbroker, declines in the form of a lengthy, analytical put-down. But Christina, because she’s the free spirit, cocks her head seductively, tosses her blond mane and purrs acceptance. We’re ten minutes into the movie, and Allen’s familiar paint-by-numbers approach to character development is solidly in place. Nevertheless, soon both women are taking off with Bardem in his private plane.

Christina gets sick at the outset of the trip, so it’s the uptight Vicky who joins Bardem in a visit to his poet father, drinking copious amount of wine, listening to romantic guitar music -and ultimately, making love in the moonlight. Confused and guilt-stricken, she returns quickly to her relatives’ home in Barcelona. Christina, meanwhile, recovers and gets her shot with Juan Antonio. They fall in love, and she moves in with him.

And that’s when the movie really takes off.

Because Juan Antonio has a crazy ex-wife, Marie Elena (Cruz) who once tried to kill him. She winds up on his doorstep again after a failed suicide attempt when she has nowhere else to go, and he takes her in; with Christina, the two of them form an initially uneasy – and eventually tres sophisticated – menage a trois. From her first appearance, Cruz seizes the film and makes it her own. She’s not afraid to be completely unhinged, nasty, snarly and over the top, but she’s never scary, only hilarious. Most of her dialogue is in Spanish, but even if there were no subtitles, I think we’d still laugh. Something about the ridiculousness of her petulant irrationality needs no translation. The crazy/beautiful woman is a stock character in Allen’s films; he fetishizes unstable women in way that, at its worst, feels a little sick. But Cruz’ performance is miraculously light-spirited, not creepy. Nothing about her behavior would make you want to spend time with her, and yet the movie feels a lot more fun and buoyant when she’s around.

And Bardem and Cruz have an amazing onscreen chemistry that is both delicate and electric. When they spar, you get a sense of what their whole relationship history has been about, the passion as well as the fighting. During their scenes, you completely forget you’re watching a Woody Allen movie. And I do mean that as a compliment.

To be fair, though, they’re not the only ones giving performances that are infinitely better than the material. The role of Vicky is humorless and overwritten; it’s to Hall’s everlasting credit that she make something real and touching out of the caricature she’s been handed to play. A lesser actress would have turned Vicky’s extended rants shrill; Hall makes them persuasive and reasonable. Similarly, her transformation (under Bardem’s spell) into a relaxed and sensual creature has a subtle, unforced luminosity.

Johansson’s Christina, by contrast, is nothing special. Her performance feels almost phoned in, as if the only direction she were given is to part her pouty lips, toss her hair around and look game for anything- and she barely accomplishes that much. I know Johansson loves working with Woody, but I don’t think he’s done anything valuable for her career. She deserves much better parts than this.

As far as Allen’s screenplay goes, “Vicky Christina Barcelona” suffers from many of the same weaknesses as his other recent films. There are the annoying lapses in logic (how is that Vicky, a graduate student studying Catalan culture, has never learned to speak Spanish?) There are the superfluous cultural references, awkwardly inserted to give the film intellectual cred (there’s a lot of talk about Gaudi architecture, but we barely get to see any of it. It’s never shown in sufficient detail or glory for us to understand why Vicky – or anyone – would be inspired by it. If the Gaudi church really has such an influence on a major character, it ought to be almost a character itself.) But the sumptuous Spanish locations are filmed so gorgeously and ravishingly that you sort of let this stuff slide. It’s amazing how a few sun-soaked shots of Spanish countryside can make a mediocre little film feel like a decadent, late-summer escape. Allen isn’t really getting any better as filmmaker as he get older, but at least he’s learned how to pick his locations.


8 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I cannot wait to see this! Sounds great indeed.

Comment by nick plowman

“the same pretentious twaddle that Allen’s been dishing out for years, only wrapped up so prettily that you might not notice.”So … I take it you didn’t like it.And Nick … did you read the same review I did?

Comment by Rick Olson

Rick – I didn’t out-and-out hate it (like I do so many of Allen’s recent films). As I mentioned, the scenes with Cruz and Bardem are quite magical.But I don’t think Woody has anything interesting or profound to say about love or relationships anymore. His characters are one-dimensional and cliched,his cultural references are usually outdated. He has no idea how people under the age of 50 actually talk or spend their time.I kinda wish he would just stick to making silly movies (like “Small Time Crooks” and even “Scoop,” which I liked better than most people did).And this is coming from someone who worshipped Woody Allen in his late ’70s heyday and right up through “Crimes and Misdemeanors” in 1989.

Comment by Pat

And Nick, you should see this for Cruz and Bardem and Hall, but I would never say it was great.

Comment by Pat

I, too, thought Allen was the greatest thing since sliced bread in the 70s … after Crimes and Misdemeanors, I’ve seen about a third of his output, which has still, as you know, been prodigious.One of the things about being a Woody fan is having to put up with his various hangups and neuroses (perhaps what you call his “pretentious twaddle”).Of course, that’s part of being a Fellini fan — all the circuses and the grotesqueries — or, to use an example closer to Woody’s heart, a Bergman fan, with all the cold father figures and wrestling with a God he didn’t profess to believe in.And I agree — I liked “Scoop” better than most as well, better than Match Point, actually .

Comment by Rick Olson

Rick -I’m so glad to hear that someone else liked “Scoop” better than “Match Point” (I hated “Match Point.”)But hope springs eternal for us Woody fans, right? I mean, I still run out and see every new movie of his as soon as it hits the theatres, still always believing he’s going to make another great one someday. And his next movie is set in New York and stars Larry David – two very good signs.

Comment by Pat

I know this isn’t the right place to post this, but i couldn’t find any e-mail address for you guys, so i decided to write here in this post. Sry! ;)So…i found a top 10 list with the most violent movies off all time, but i would like to see your opinions. ๐Ÿ™‚ Here’s the link: for the blog :0

Comment by Ronald Lewis

Ha, I was being sarcastic ๐Ÿ˜‰

Comment by nick plowman

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