The downfall to making a movie a year is that sometimes you make consecutive crap. Woody Allen knows this very well as of late as his last two features, Cassandra’s Dream and Scoop (and basically everything he’s made since 2000′s enjoyable Small Time Crooks) were two unpolished and seemingly hurried productions that didn’t generate critical buzz or box office revenue. His newest, Vicky Crisitina Barcelona, is actually pretty solid and well-made for the most part. It’s more like his 2006 film Match Point.
Like Match Point, VCB abandons Allen’s comfort zone of New York, but more importantly, it abandons the role of the self-deprecating, nervous character which is always either played by Allen himself or someone else doing an Allen impersonation (like Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway, or most embarrassingly, Scarlett Johansson in Scoop). All the characters here are highly sexual, motivated artists who thrive with a free-spirited attitude.
Basically, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Johansson, Allen’s untalented muse) are on vacation in Barcelona. Vicky is a reserved woman with a fiance, Cristina is there to be inspired. One night they meet Juan Antonio who introduces himself and within minutes is asking them to join him for a romantic of food, wine, and love-making. He’s a charmer who at one point during the exchange, when the women are debating going with this strange man, says “I came over here with great subterfuge and presented my best offer.” Ultimately, the two women both fall for Juan Antonio, Cristina opting to stay with him, Vicky going with her tail between her legs back to her fiance. This is when Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, comes into the proceedings with a fury.
The movie is pretty light throughout. The carefree attitude of the characters translates to the direction. It also doesn’t hurt that cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe is a citizen of Spain and captures its hillsides, landscapes, and aquatic views with great care. Allen early in the film resorts to some of his more signature shots as we’re introduced to the two main females in a split-screen as a narrator fills us in as to who they are. We’re also introduced to Juan Antonio without the camera actually going towards him. All we see is Cristina’s face light up as Vicky’s Aunt Judy describes his dark and mysterious reputation. The direction is really solid throughout, and the scenes where Juan, Maria, and Cristina make art together are handled with a sense of reverence and beauty, and like I said, it’s all very light and extremely provocative. It’s very old-fashioned in a sense that it can be sexy without showing the intercourse.
Bardem is steamy. Even as a staunch heterosexual I can admit that. He exudes sexiness and has a eloquent charm, he’s miles away from No Country for Old Men territory. The two ladies are kind of disappointing. Johansson is better here than she is in Match Point or in most of her Hollywood roles, but she does not emote the confidence that Cristina obviously has. In scenes between her and Penelope Cruz you can see the great disparity between the two as far as talent, and I don’t think anyone has ever considered Cruz your premiere thespian. Rebecca Hall is decent. She plays the duality of being torn between two lovers pretty well, but also very obvious. Women generally do a good job of hiding their emotions, especially when they’re being dishonest (sorry for the sexist blanket remark, but it’s mostly true), but Vicky wears everything on her sleeve. This wouldn’t be a problem if Chris Messina, who portrays Vicky’s fiance Doug, didn’t wander aimlessly through the film with the same sideways grin and unassuming nature. It was probably written this way to show us how oblivious Doug is, but it just makes us lose respect for the character right away, and that’s not what this should be about–it shouldn’t be one-sided. We wouldn’t care about Diane Lane’s affair in Unfaithful if Richard Gere was a one-note character, right?
Penelope Cruz steals this show. She’s intense, passionate, and a loose cannon in nearly every scene. She goes back and forth between English and Spanish (much to the urging of Juan Antonio) and nails the comedic timing in both languages. In the spectrum of Woody Allen’s erratic female characters, Maria Elena emerges as one of the crown jewels of his collection. If Cruz is not nominated for any awards come Oscar season, it will be a shame because this is one hell of a performance to not be considered.
There’s a lot to like about Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and none of it has to do with Scarlett and Penelope making out (which is a brief moment). My one main drawback to the film is that it has an unnecessary and unengaging narrator who keeps having to fill us in on what’s going on because the film is 97 minutes long and covers an entire summer. I think we could’ve figured out what was going on without the addition of the narrator’s audiobook-like tone, but I’m generally disapproving of narration in film anyway.