As I walked out of a screening for Woody Allen's new film Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a friend cracked that Allen only gives us a decent film every 10 years, and implied that VCB had successfully staked its claim as the decade's quota. Me, I'm not so sure. Certainly Allen's prior two films, Match Point and Scoop, weren't anything to write home about. But it's tough to say if VCB is the triumph we've all been waiting for.
Allen loves two things unabashedly: women and cities. And both take precedence in his movies. For a great long while, his main focus was New York, with a slew of female muses (Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow) in supporting roles. Then he moved on to Paris. And then London. Now he has his sights set on Barcelona, and as the filmography can attest, the picture he paints in VCB is a loving one, full of voluptuous tableaux representing all the romantic aspects of typical Spanish life: Gaudi, Miró, wine, seafood, guitar, and Penelope Cruz, who serves double duty as both a representation of the city and the female muse that Allen has historically used as the basis for his movies.
The plot is nothing new: two American tourists take a jaunt to Spain for some cultural edification, staying at a distant relative's improbably beautiful mansion. (In this case, the relative is a criminally under-used Patricia Clarkson.) The two women are opposite sides of the same coin: the staid, analytical Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and the flighty, passionate Cristina (Scarlett Johansson). Their broad-stroke contrasting personalities are underscored rather simplistically by their physicality -- Vicky is the tall, willowy brunette and Cristina the petite, curvaceous blonde. As is his way, Allen insists on bestowing on his protagonist -- in this case, Vicky -- his own halting, affected patois, which has worked in the past, but here only serves to make Vicky strident and distinctly unlikable as the neurotic Allen doppleganger (albeit in a much much prettier package). It must also be said that Allen's use of narrative voice-over is oppressive to the point of distraction. Didn't anyone pass along that "show, don't tell" chestnut they teach you in the first year of film school?
Vicky is soon to be married to a bland, affluent guy named Doug, whom she's left back in New York, and is off to Spain for the summer to study Catalan Identity, whatever the hell that is. Cristina, having suffered the most recent in a series of breakups, merely wants to get away and lose herself in the adventure. They're not in Barcelona long before they meet a smoldering artist named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) whose reputation for having an explosive relationship with his now ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) precedes him. As Allen's sexual fantasy would have it, the two girls become embroiled in a love triangle and questions of fidelity, love, passion and marriage are cursorily explored through the differing points of view of all parties involved.
By this time, roughly a third of the way through the movie, there have been no real comedic moments, nor have there been any steamy sex scenes. Like a number of camera shots that feature characters speaking to or looking at someone just off screen for several beats before the object of their attention is revealed, the crux of the action -- Juan Antonio's volatile ex-wife Maria Elena -- is merely hinted at. Then finally into this frankly boring mix she hurls herself, establishing at once the comedy, sex appeal and complexity that the movie's been lacking the whole time.
Maria Elena, whom we're told once tried to kill Juan Antonio, finds herself smack-dab in the middle of the relaxed, bohemian domesticity that he's since set up with Cristina. She is passionate, artistic and unstable -- the thinking man's pin-up and no doubt one of Allen's many one-dimensional fantasy women. Sure, she's a caricature -- the classic spicy Latina -- but that doesn't make her portrayal of the fiery, sharp-tongued and vaguely pathological Maria Elena any less of a joy to watch.
For the most part, the truly Spanish elements of this love-letter to Spain -- namely Bardem and Cruz -- are the only things about this movie that work. It's not much of a stretch for Bardem to play a swarthy, sexy Latin lover -- though surely it's a huge departure from the last time we saw him on the big screen. Still, seeing this archetypal role filtered through Allen's distinct New York Jew perspective is funny and charming. At one point, when Bardem's character is making a case for Vicky and Cristina to join him for a romantic weekend (and a threesome), he echoes Allen's own quote from Annie Hall ("Life is full of misery, pain and tremendous suffering, and it's all over much too quickly"), saying, "Life is short. Life is dull. Life is full of pain." It's reassuring to know that these are universal truths.
As for Cruz, her depiction of Maria Elena is nothing short of miraculous. From the second she enters the screen, she's off and running, spitting long, megalomaniac sermons in Spanish and broken English (one of the funniest scenes involves Juan Antonio begging her to "speak English" while she rambles on about Cristina's inferiority as a match for her ex-husband). Sadly, like much of the movie, it's too little, too late. Even the much buzzed-about scene in which Maria Elena, Cristina and Juan Antonio engage in the inevitable ménage à trois, is only hinted at, and never provides the type of resolution (or, let's be honest, voyeuristic satisfaction) you've been waiting for.
By the movie's end, none of the characters have undergone any of the transformations that their respective scenarios ought to have wrought. Each one is unchanged, and as flat, lonely and adrift as he or she was at the beginning of the story. Which begs the question: if we didn't know this was a Woody Allen film, would it even be considered a comedy? When all is said and done, the mundane reality of each character's life, and his or her inability to be moved by experiences, leaves one cold. Better luck next time, Woody.
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