Vicky Cristina Barcelona (United States/Spain, 2008)
There was hope in 2005 that Woody Allen had re-discovered his groove with the release of Match Point. Since then, however, he has slipped back into the sinkhole of mediocrity that kept him from greatness throughout most of the '90s and '00s. Unfortunately, Match Point is beginning to look like an exception. None of the three movies to reach theaters after it have come close to achieving an equal plateau, although this latest effort, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is a step up from its immediate predecessors, Scoop and Cassandra's Dream.
Can a voiceover narrative ruin a movie? Probably not, but it can undermine one, and that's what happens here. Allen commits the cardinal sin of constantly break into his story with a barrage of verbal diarrhea uttered by Christopher Evan Welch, who really doesn't have the voice for this kind of thing. There's nothing ironic or witty or insightful about these disembodied observations. Half the time, they're stating the obvious. The rest of the time, Allen is using them as a crutch to move things along. One of the most basic rules of filmmaking is "show, don't tell." Employing (and overusing) a narrator allows Allen to re-write the rule as "tell, don't show." This is how plots start to feel contrived and artificial and how characters never quite gel.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an atypical Allen film. Some of his usual themes are present - in particular, his neuroses about sex and love - but this movie does not bear enough Allen hallmarks to single it out as his work. Technically, it's probably a comedy, but it's not very funny nor does it intend to be. It's not a question of there being a lot of failed jokes; there aren't many jokes to begin with. The movie is driven by the manic energy that often characterizes comedies, but the punchlines are missing. It's an interesting way to frame a movie, and it makes things seem a little more lighthearted than they might in a more serious interpretation of the same material.
Allen is fond of love triangles, and that's the geometry he's working with here. (Actually, it's more of a quadrangle.) Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are two Americans spending a summer vacation in Barcelona. Vicky is there to do research for her Master's thesis. Cristina is there to soak in the atmosphere. One night, they meet painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who invites them to go on a weekend trip with him for sightseeing, good meals, and sex. Cristina, who has a wild streak, loves the idea, but the more conservative Vicky is uncertain. She has no interest in sleeping with Juan, especially since she has a fiancé waiting for her in New York. After some persuasion, both women agree to accompany the painter and, predictably, both fall for him. But things get complicated when Vicky's fiancé arrives in Spain to surprise her with an impromptu wedding and Juan's ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), stumbles back into his life in the wake of a suicide attempt.
Allen and his actors fashion characters who are at least interesting and some of the dialogue is, if not top-notch, reasonably intelligent. The major relationships in Vicky Cristina Barcelona are well-developed, although the transitions between them are sloppy. If Allen has a message here, which he almost always does, it's that the shifting nature of love ensures that the only constant in any relationship is that it will change and what one wants at any given moment may not be what one wants shortly thereafter. Since screenplays sometimes function as therapy for Allen, one wonders what issues he's working out through Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
The acting is, for the most part, solid. Javier Bardem won an Oscar in 2008 as one of the creepiest killers ever to walk the earth. Here, he oozes charm and charisma, and he doesn't carry an air gun. Penélope Cruz is a firecracker and her performance sizzles with suppressed (and, at times, not-so-suppressed) sexuality. Rebecca Hall, the least-known name in the primary cast (she had a role in the British rom-com, Starter for 10, opposite James McAvoy), gives perhaps the deepest, most heartfelt portrayal. We understand the trap she's in and feel for her position. As Cristina, Scarlett Johansson, who appears to be Allen's latest woman of choice, is merely adequate. Johannson's recent performances have slipped from the promise shown in movies like Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona represents Allen's fourth consecutive project outside of the United States (he will return to New York for his 2009 release) and, if nothing else, it has given his movies a less insular feel. There are some positive qualities to Vicky Cristina Barcelona, not the least of which is the picturesque location work. Here, Allen is writing adult characters rather than caricatures, but his big misstep - the godawful voiceover - is so grating that it's as if the director accidentally swapped out the real soundtrack for a bad DVD commentary. I can't say that Vicky Cristina Barcelona would have been a great movie without the narration, but it would have been better.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (United States/Spain, 2008)
Cast: Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Penélope Cruz, Chris Messina, Patricia Clarkson, Kevin Dunn
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Cinematography: Javier Aguirresarobe
U.S. Distributor: The Weinstein Company