Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona one-sheetLeaving 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.Javier Bardem & Rebecca Hall 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, Penelope CruzHall 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.

Scarlett Johnasson

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

  • Anonymous

    I’m trying to remember when all the scandal hit about Woody and his ex-lovers adopted daughter, with whom he got involved. I suspect it was before you media savvy super powers kicked in. But I can’t let it go. And anything I know is touched by him is going to only appear in its most lurid way. I think I’m doing much better with your review than I would with the movie.

    I’m just thankful I saw Batman Begins when I was distracted and had forgotten all about Tom Cruise. I never thought of “cradle robbing” once during the whole movie.

    • 1992, that was. I make no excuses for Woody’s personal life…he’s pretty much a dirty old man. Although he is married to Soon-Yi Previn now (Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter), something you can’t say for either Mia Farrow or Diane Keaton… But the man has made four or five, at least, of the greatest films between 1970 and now, and that has nothing to do with his off-screen life, for me.

      Batman Begins…Tom Cruise…? Oh, because of Katie Holmes? It’s less the cradle-robbing that bothers me about that and more the cult indoctrination. But again, on-screen, off-screen, two different places.

    • Who the hell still cares about Woody’s personal life? I just flat out don’t get it. The guy might be a bit of a dirty old man, though by all accounts his relationship with Soon-Yi is fairly stable and loving — but again, who cares? Picasso was probably a jerk too. You’re watching a movie, not eating dinner with the guy.

      Anyway, I thought VCB was fantastic. Great performances (especially Hall and Cruz — good call), really funny at times and surprisingly moving at others. I thought the ending was perfectly pitched too. These characters are drifting through life, their dreams are vague in the extreme, and they’re basically applying a tourist mentality to every aspect of their lives. So it makes sense that the final shot shows them staring blankly off into the distance, uncertain what if anything they’ve learned or experienced in Barcelona.

      • I agree with you, Ed, but let’s not get upset over it.

        Hall and Cruz blow me away in everything, so I wasn’t surprised they were outstanding in this. The variety of performances worked really well – Cruz is so high-strung, and yet perfect, and Hall is so subtle, and yet perfect, and Bardem and Johansson are somewhere in the middle…it’s quite a feat to manage so many different levels of character and performances and still have it work as an ensemble.

        Great description of the end, too. That nails exactly what I was feeling at the end – the final scene and shot felt right, but I couldn’t really explain why.

  • Anonymous

    Ed, I loved Batman Begins and was glad I didn’t let knowledge of anyone’s personal life spoil it for me. I liked Jandy’s review and thought the movie sounded, well, well above average.

    I think a chit-chat comment about personal foibles in going to movies is being interpreted as some sort of principled stand on the lives of those involved in movies. It was nothing of the kind.

    Whatever shouldn’t affect one’s appreciation or not, of a movie, sometimes things do for some people. I was just reporting on mine. It was a good post and I tend to want to leave comments on posts that I like. So I came up with something. At ease, soldier.

    I suspect the same foible, btw, also makes me want to *like* actors and directors of stuff I appreciate. Maybe my fanboyisms are also irrational and I shouldn’t care a bit. But I can’t help but think it would be somewhat inhuman to not care about people I watch perform for me so often (I’m thinking especially about TV here). So even though I agree with you in principle, I don’t feel too bad having these irrational feelings, even if the get in the way of appreciation at some points.

    • Sorry, I didn’t mean to come across as so pissed. I’m a big fan of Woody’s work, and it annoys me that so many people dismiss his more recent films because of his personal life — not that you were necessarily doing that, but I’ve seen it done so often that I tend to bristle at it.

      As a sidenote, Katie Holmes bothered me in Batman Begins not because of Tom Cruise, but because she simply can’t act. I’m so glad she was replaced in the second film by an actual actress.

      Anyway, I enjoyed the review, Jandy, my own is up now too:
      http://seul-le-cinema.blogspot.com/2008/08/815-vicky-cristina-barcelona.html

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