Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Movies: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

When I first saw the trailer for this film (which did not disclose Woody Allen's name, which has become something of a liability these days), I rolled my eyes and gagged and cursed the particular American sentiment that idealizes those wildly romantic Europeans. Later, I saw the poster, which did disclose Woody Allen's name, and immediately began looking for a fork to stick into my eye, knowing that I was now obligated to watch the damned thing.

And so. Two young American women, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) go to Barcelona for a liminal summer, where they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a romantic artist who sweeps each one off her feet. Cristina is a romantic, unsure of what she wants, and still trying to find herself artistically (she rather reminds me of myself at sixteen, and yes, that's meant to be an insult). Vicky is the classic neurotic, highly intellectual, verbally facile, sexually frigid Woody Allen female, the Diane Keaton, if you will. She, of course, has less than no interest in Juan Antonio's proposed threesome, but he eventually cracks her hardened exterior for one romantic evening; now, although she is about to be married to the "perfect" man, she is now a lot less sure of her desires. But it's too late; Cristina, has moved in with Juan Antonio and is living the bohemian life she thinks she's been searching for. For a moment, her happiness is interrupted by the reappearance of her lover's melodramatic ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) after a suicide attempt, but they quickly all become friends and, in fact, lovers, and Cristina begins to find herself artistically. Strangely enough, as the summer comes to a close, she realizes that she's still not happy, so she leaves them (and their relationship quickly falls apart without her there to temper their passion, which tends toward anger and violence). Vicky gets another chance with Juan Antonio, but passes it up (after a violent intervention by Maria Elena with a pistol), and in the end, both girls return to the states to continue their lives as previously planned.

It's quite a disappointment that the characters are simply type-cast cartoons sketched quickly to illustrate a kind of fantasy Allen harbors about those crazy, wild, passionate Europeans (indeed, as he said in an interview, the film could just have easily taken place in France or Italy or Greece or any such picturesque Mediterranean location). The writing is, in fact, so lazy, that, rather than illustrate each character's emotional state in their words and actions, Allen employs a narrative voice-over that seems to be reading the parts of the screenplay that aren't to be read, so simple and naive are his words (for example, when Cristina first sees Juan Antonio's paintings, the narrator says something rather like, "She looked at his paintings with excitement, and felt moved by the vivid colors and powerful brushstrokes.") Much of this narration was so ridiculous that I laughed out loud in the theater, but no one else was laughing; I'm still wondering whether it is meant to be funny (not unlike the brilliant voice-over narration on Arrested Development), perhaps in a self-deprecating way, or whether it is, indeed, just lazy, a kind of quick-and-dirty way to fill in the story between what actually amounts to a string of relationship vignettes between the various sets of lovers.

The real bugbear (as usual, in Allen's recent films), is Scarlett Johansson's inability to act; here, it rather suits her role as a young woman who desperately wants to be artistic, but completely lacks any real soul or passion. Contrasting her with the breathtaking Penélope Cruz, who steals the show in spite of having only half the screentime of her childish, blonde colleague seems to be a cruel and obvious metaphor; not only does Cristina not have the artistic passion and talent that Maria Elena has, Scarlett doesn't have the command of the screen that Penélope has. When Cristina announces to her two lovers that she is leaving, Maria Elena flies into a fit of sputtering Spanish, tossing her wild hair and raving that Cristina will never be satisfied, no matter how many people she uses. Aside from being an overstated, but perhaps fair, indictment of American culture by Woody Allen, it's an opportunity for Cruz to demonstrate, as she does throughout the film, her superiority to the rest of the female cast. Bardem, for his part, plays equally well, with a kind of melting panache in the line of Cary Grant, European-style. It's too bad, though, that his character, like the rest, is so flat.

Ultimately, this is probably Allen's best film for the decade, but that isn't saying a lot. It makes sense, and is even funny, within the context of his oeuvre, but, in and of itself, it's rather disappointing. What's worse is that, when considered against his other films, it lacks any fresh realizations. Perhaps not since the late 1980s has the man made a movie that came to new realizations, philosophically-speaking. How is it that as he gets older, he loses his wisdom?

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