Leaving New York for London with Match Point revitalized Woody Allen‘s career in 2005; now he picks up shop again, this time seeking inspiration in Spain. And again, the move does him good, as Vicky Cristina Barcelona evokes, though perhaps does not quite equal, his greatest triumphs. Best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) head to Barcelona for a couple of months of study and adventure. Vicky, solidly sure of herself and preparing to marry stably but not imaginatively, plans to finish her thesis on Catalan Identity while Cristina, intense and impulsive, seeks new experiences and passions without really knowing what, if anything, would satisfy her.
All this is revealed in the first five minutes via voice-over narration, a device you’ll probably have a love-hate relationship with. In the beginning, I wished Woody would show more and tell less, but as the film progressed, the narration took on a very dry, ironic tone that I found delightful. Anyway, when painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) turns up and invites both girls for a weekend in his home town, the setup is fairly obvious – stability vs. passion. Complicating his attraction to Vicky and Cristina is the fact that he’s still completely in love with his ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), even though their relationship ended by her stabbing him. Or did it?
Let me get my few negatives out of the way first. Juan Antonio is a dog – he propositions everybody within five minutes of talking to them. Once he’s in a steady relationship, he’s a great guy, but I wish Allen had come up with a better way to say “hey, this guy is passionate” than having him try to get everyone into bed immediately. Patricia Clarkson is wasted in her role of an older woman unsatisfied in her stable marriage whose job basically is to try to get Vicky to leave her fiance Doug (Chris Messina) to pursue Juan Antonio. And the ending leaves us not very much different from the beginning, unsure how the Barcelona experience has changed our characters. I’m not wholly inclined to see the last thing as a negative, though. Often such experiences don’t immediately make their effects known, and leaving it to each audience member to decide how Vicky, Cristina, Juan Antonio, Maria Elena, and Doug will ultimately be affected may be a shrewd move on Woody’s part. And nitpicky thing – hold the dang camera still! There’s barely a shot that isn’t panning or pushing or pulling or tracking. This complaint was perhaps intensified by my recent reading of David Bordwell‘s The Way Hollywood Tells It, which talks a lot about the growing use of the “roving camera,” which made me notice it a lot more than I probably otherwise would’ve.
Okay, back to the good parts. Woody’s most solid script in years balances drama and comedy very well, keeping away from extremes of silliness (cf. Scoop or Broadway Danny Rose) and seriousness (cf. Match Point or Interiors). That’s not to say he doesn’t do the extremes well, but I tend to find him most enjoyable and memorable when he does dramatic stories tinged with wit throughout, as in my favorites, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters. While I wouldn’t raise Vicky Cristina Barcelona to those dizzying heights, it’s back on track.
In addition, the cast handles the script with perfect timing, both verbally and physically. When Rebecca Hall appeared in The Prestige as Christian Bale’s long-suffering wife, I found her far more compelling than Scarlett Johansson, who had the larger role of mistress to both Bale and Hugh Jackman. Reteamed here, Hall again outshines her flashier costar. She’s one to watch for in the future; I’ve yet to be unimpressed with her. Johansson can be uneven, but here she matches her performance to the ensemble nicely. You’ll forget all about Bardem’s menacing Anton Chigurh as he infuses Juan Antonio with warmth and humor. And Penélope Cruz owns the screen every second she’s on it (and many that she’s not). The many explosions of laughter from the audience were all deserved equally by the script, the actors, and even the editing at one particular point.
Finally, a word about the relationships, which all end up better in threes than twos – couples needing a third person to balance out. This goes to extremes with Cristina, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, but the same concept appears with Juan Antonio-Cristina-Vicky, Cristina-Vicky-Doug, abortively with Maria Elena-Juan Antonio-Vicky, and even perhaps with the titular Vicky-Cristina-Barcelona. At one level, the threesome activity seems like Woody’s own fantasies playing out (admittedly, in a rather tame fashion – there’s a lot of sex going on in this PG-13 film, but it’s pretty much all offscreen and termed “going to bed together”). But the shifting relationship triangle is not an uncommon literary device, particularly noticable in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, in which virtually all the relationships form shifting triangles. I’m not sure how far to take Allen’s use of the theme, but the idea seems to be that each person needs two people in their lives – one more passionate/emotional and one more stable/rational than themselves. But the film expounds no such obvious message, which is a plus for me.
Juan Antonio’s father is a poet who refuses to publish his work as a way of getting back at a world he doesn’t like – denying the world the things of beauty he creates. It’s impossible to apply that maxim to Allen, who has compulsively shared his work, beautiful and not, with the world nearly every year since 1972. The good is well worth putting up with the less-good, and hopefully Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a sign of more future beautifully-made films from him. Also, Barcelona? Gorgeous. I want to go now.
USA 2008; dir: Woody Allen; starring: Scarlett Johnasson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Chris Messina, Patricia Clarkson
Screened 13 August 2008 with a sneak preview audience; Aero Theatre, Los Angeles
Well Above Average
Opens 15 August 2008