Movie Review: 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona'
Woody Allen's European adventures continue -- successfully
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" plays like a conscious attempt at a freewheeling artifact of the French New Wave, particularly Francois Truffaut's "Jules and Jim," with its sexual triangulations and hard-won romantic wisdom. Allen's film can't really withstand such comparisons; it's extremely modest, and besides, when Allen does "freewheeling" it can't help but come off a bit studied.
Yet I enjoyed it as much as any Allen film of the last 20 years. When it's over, and the two Americans at the heart of the story depart Barcelona in overlapping states of confusion, you're left with a tinge of melancholy that feels not plot-driven, not engineered, but like a slice of reasonably complicated life.
Allen shoots on location in Barcelona, Oviedo and other locales, while peering in on the love lives of two American women in their 20s. Scarlett Johansson plays Cristina, the reckless one. As the unseen and very busy narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) informs us, her suffering is "an inevitable component" of any relationship. She is one of Allen's vaguely frustrated women searching for a meaningful creative outlet and has come to Barcelona (guests of friends of the family, played by Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn) arm-in-arm with sensible, skeptical, engaged-to-be-married Vicky, played by Rebecca Hall. More on her later: She's a major screen actress in the making.
Seemingly 10 minutes after unpacking the ladies run into Javier Bardem, whose smooth-talking yet attractively tormented artist offers to show these two a very good time. (You can tell he's trouble because he wears a crimson-red shirt.) Before long one of the women falls for him, then the other, and then onto the scene pops Penelope Cruz, as Bardem's outrageously cliched, insanely jealous ex-wife.
Allen could've played this for door-slamming, flamenco-accented farce, and hints of that come through in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." But the writer-director lets this story and these characters breathe a little. The comic and dramatic threads complement each other, even if the narration lays everything out with a trowel. It's hard to believe Allen couldn't come up with more interesting and less literal-minded observations than: "Life continued predictably for Vicky and Doug [her fiance]—until an unpredictable moment occurred." Or this, accompanying a tour of an art museum: "They particularly enjoyed the works of Gaudi and Miro."
Lines like that are just furniture, and it's too bad Allen falls into the old trap of painting characters like Vicky's nudnik fiance; (Chris Messina) as a nudnik simply because he's into golf and finance. He does, however, take an unusually forgiving stance with each of the major players in his little comedy-drama. And with Hall's Vicky, the film acquires real emotional force. Hall didn't even make the poster, which depicts Bardem, Cruz and Johannson, but she's the heart of the film. As Vicky finds herself in various conflicted states—drawn to the Spanish rake, obligated to her dullish intended, scolding of Cristina yet envious—Hall rivets your attention. Like Kate Winslet, she's a fabulous reactor and inter-actor. The same can't be said of Johansson, who has her appeal (duh), but it's more about hitting a single note, hard, rather than blending a few.
At its Cannes Film Festival premiere in May "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" was greeted with a weird sort of nervous, non-stop laughter. At a recent Chicago press screening the response was more subdued but, I suspect, more attentive and attuned to the film itself. Don't expect the world or a million laughs or even gorgeous Spanish scenery from this conventionally made picture. But don't underestimate its ability to charm either.
See the trailer and find local showtimes for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."