The performances are terrific all around, which is to be expected when talented actors such as these are fortunate to work with an actor’s director like Allen.
Woody Allen’s new film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is a difficult movie to categorize and an even more difficult movie to critique. With the film, Allen is collaborating for the first time with Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, and has brought back his muse of the moment, Scarlett Johansson, for a third go around. With this cast being directed by one of America’s great filmmakers, it is disheartening that the final product is only mediocre at best.
The film follows Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) on their holiday to Spain to stay with Vicky’s relatives. They spend their time eating amazing food, drinking even better wine and seeing every historical site they can. One night they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a semi-well-known painter whose bohemian approach to life intrigues Cristina and unnerves Vicky. From the start, Cristina is enamored with Juan Antonio’s confidence and personality, but it takes Vicky a while to warm up to him.
After Cristina has begun spending more time with Juan Antonio, even moving in with him, he is forced to take in his ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), after she has attempted suicide. Juan Antonio has already hinted that they had a tempestuous and sometimes violent relationship but that he is still very much in love with her. Maria Elena appears to simply be adjusting to her new life, but is in fact biding her time to reveal her true self to Cristina.
The film is pleasant enough to watch and has some stunning shots of the Spanish countryside and historic offerings as Allen has refocused his attention from Manhattan to Europe. Allen takes his time in each scene, never rushing the action or dialogue, which is a large departure from his usual style of quick-witted banter and short scenes. It feels like an entirely new and more mature director has blossomed, yet still retains Allen’s ability to capture the reality of relationships between men and women.
While the pacing is one of the strong tools of the movie, it is also a fault. It takes a long time for the plot to develop, and while the audience is led to believe one story will be the central focus, about halfway in an entirely different story involving Juan Antonio, Cristina and Maria Elena evolves and takes over the movie. Also, the main narrative technique of the film is to have a very somber and sober narrator describe practically everything that occurs as if the viewer is not intelligent enough to pick up on Allen’s subtle writing and direction. Each time the narrator begins to explain what is clearly happening on screen, it feels like a forced, unnecessary tool that only pulls the viewer out of the movie.
The performances are terrific all around, which is to be expected when talented actors such as these are fortunate to work with an actor’s director like Allen. Johansson plays Cristina with a wide-eyed innocence that can lead to nothing but bad things. Bardem is one of the most charming and disarming leading men ever to appear on screen. And Cruz gives another wonderful performance, balancing humor and humiliation perfectly as a woman disgusted with her own life. The work of these actors alone is enough of a reason to see the film. | Matthew F. Newlin