Release Date: Aug. 15
Director/Writer: Woody Allen
Cinematographer: Javier Aguirresarobe
Starring: Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall
Studio/Run Time: The Weinstein Company, 97 mins.
Woody Allen and his star-studded cast strike the right balance between sex and comedy
In his most delightful subversion yet, septuagenarian Woody Allen’s films get richer and sexier as he grows older and greyer. Credit the success of 2005’s Match Point for a lesson well-learned: The right, pillowy-lipped cast can turn would-be annoying neuroticism into a compelling look at human nature and culture clashes.
This time, those lips belong to best buds Vicky (newcomer Rebecca Hall), a straight-laced grad student writing her thesis on Catalan identity, and free-spirited Cristina (current Allen muse Scarlett Johannsson), who’s taking a timeout from life after another failed relationship and artistic venture. The pair arrives in Barcelona for the summer seeking two months of freedom before returning to their set paths at home in the States—Vicky, marriage to a stable yuppie; Cristina, more clichéd soul-searching.
Ready or not, adventure finds them, arriving in the form of local painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, playing a character well-coiffed and human enough to make you forget his calculating turn in No Country for Old Men). One evening, Juan approaches the two girls at dinner and presents them with a proposition: travel to the small town of Oviedo with him in one hour on his private three-seater for a weekend of good food, good wine and good sex. Well, why not? When in Barcelona…
Bardem’s Juan Antonio is just the kind of Spaniard turistas dream of when traveling abroad—handsome, artsy, sexually direct in a non-threatening way. But while Cristina may seem liberal in her shades of grey as she twists her hair in less-than-coy acquiescence (Vicky immediately disapproves), the Spaniard, with his colorful views of idealized romanticism, shows her up. And before the tale is through, both women get pulled into his world and out of their comfort zones—just two more pretty, colorful brush strokes on his vibrant canvas.
From the start, Vicky Cristina Barcelona plays like a light-hearted fable, complete with narration. As a device, voiceover often results in lazy filmmaking, but here it fits. The over-enunciated, measured cadence—reminiscent of foreign-language tapes (and, thank God, not delivered by Allen’s voice)—broadcasts Vicky's and Cristina’s insecurities and desires. Like the fresh-from-Dawson’s Creek Americans they are, they overthink and overanalyze. We don’t need to hear the thoughts of the Spaniards; in contrast, they tell us themselves.
And no one tells it better, louder or straighter than Juan Antonio’s ex-wife (a superb Penélope Cruz), who bursts onto the scene two-thirds of the way through. Though she has the least amount of screen time and no claim on the title, it’s as much her film as anyone else’s. She’s been lurking like a specter since the start—we learn that she once stabbed Juan Antonio in a fit of rage (says Vicky, “Maybe you did something to deserve it”)—and she delivers. Her María Elena is a tornado of a woman, yelling, painting, nurturing and threatening to kill (herself and others) with as much passion as she has beauty. To watch her is to see everything Vicky and Cristina—no matter how alluring they are in their own right—are not.
The story is a lesson for them, but also for us—and for Mr. Allen. After all, no one can pack a couple hours full of frets and freakouts the way he can. If he’s telling us to shut up already, is he promising—in his own tongue-in-cheek way—to do the same? If it means more breezy gems like this, we can only hope.
Allen’s comic timing is in tip-top form, keeping what could be a clunker of a set-up—a cross-cultural study of the incarnations of modern love—from turning too precious or too risqué (even during a much-hyped Cruz-on-Johansson darkroom smooch). For a movie that explores the entanglements of the human heart (and limbs), it moves a bit too cleanly from scene-to-scene, but for all the rest, it’s easy to forgive.