Vicky Christina Barcelona

August, 2008, Comedy

Directed by:Woody Allen

Starring:Javier Bardem, Rebecca Hall, Penélope Cruz, and Scarlett Johansson

Woody Allen’s latest places two restless, unfilled American beauties in Barcelona for the summer, then sends them home two months later more restless and unfilled than they were at the beginning of their trip. Don’t blame Barcelona - - it’s not the city’s fault. 

Now in his mid-seventies, Allen’s become the Neil Simon of misanthropy, his 40+ films increasingly preaching world-weary resignation in the face of life’s essential pointlessness. This low-rent existentialism worked best in his early romantic comedies, but as he grows older, the director’s vision has grown sour and more noxious, like curdled milk. The film-making talent’s still there, but the creative vision seems to have lost the capacity for bemused acceptance. In Allen’s oeuvre, life used to be absurd but rescued by its inherent humor; lately, it’s just absurd.

Vicky, (Rebecca Hall) a prototypical Upper East Side New York graduate student, has family in Barcelona.  She’s offered a room in their sumptuous home there for the summer so she can continue her Catalan studies “at the source”. Her wanna-be film-maker friend Christina, (Scarlett Johansson) goes along because at the moment, she simply doesn’t have anything better to do. In the course of some obligatory sight-seeing, the pair meet Juan Antoino, (Javier Bardem) an artist whose cultured style and frank, self-assured hedonism first lures the soon-to-be married Vicky into a night of passion before enticing Christiana into a ménage a trios featuring Juan and his desperately emotional ex-wife Maria Elena, (a wickedly delicious Penelope Cruz). 

Mesmerized by Juan’s sensual appeal but too conventional to risk losing a well-heeled existence in Westchester County with her wealthy but stuffy fiancé, Vicky advances her marriage to Barcelona’s City Hall while Christiana, having sampled the delights of both Juan and his tempestuous ex, decamps to the south of France to continue the process of “finding” herself. She returns to Barcelona in time to hear Vicky confess her pre-marital one-night stand, then joins the newly minted bride and groom for the return trip home, neither woman having learned anything about themselves in the process.

As usual, Allen’s dialogue overshadows his camerawork; his Barcelona is beautiful but presented in images more reminiscent of a travelogue than those to be found in a deft romantic comedy and the narration which accompanies the storyline, (a clumsy substitution for the director’s usual appearance as a character in his films) does little to enhance the proceedings. 

The actors however are uniformly superb. Bardem’s sleepy-eyed eroticism never slides into caricature and Cruz radiates a feral sexuality as alluring as it is dangerous. Johansson’s doe-eyed innocence initially masks Christiana’s inherent narcissism; the actress allows shallowness and self-absorption to emerge slowly enough to provide credence to a character that seeks to experience everything while learning nothing from it. But Ms. Hall’s the revelation here; capturing the jaded nonchalance of a highly-educated but inexperienced urbanite with just the right touch of knowing condescension, Vicky’s still vulnerable enough to be enchanted with Juan’s anti-establishment romanticism, yet sufficiently calculating to count the cost associated with losing her heart to him. It’s a tribute to Allen’s skills as a writer, (and to this quartet of youthful but seasoned pros) that the preposterous storyline he concocts still manages to convey recognizable archetypes; you’ve never met these characters before, but you know people just like them.

In just over an hour and a half, Allen takes his cast over the fences with a sureness borne of his 4 decades as a director; there’s no wasted motion, no scene stretched beyond its limits. The plot moves forward with crisp economy and plenty of interesting surprises. But the director’s typical whine at life’s injustices has turned into a sneer; he dislikes this carnal foursome and doesn’t particularly care for anyone else in the story either. The heartbreaking warmth of Annie Hall and Manhattan is long gone, as is the rueful awareness of family frailty in Hannah and Her Sisters; to mangle Shakespeare, this gifted writer/director has entered the winter of his creative years capable of little more than discontent.

The verdict? A brittle, articulate comedic downer - - the city’s the most appealing part of the film. 

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