Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson star in VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, directed by Woody Allen for The Weinstein Company.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008, Woody Allen)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels like old Woody Allen. The defining characteristic implying a throwback is the narration… which actually isn’t a throwback to old Woody Allen, but to Jules and Jim or Two English Girls. The film could practically be called Two American Girls, but I think then it’d be a little obvious. The only other major influence–and this one is a little of a stretch–is one shot owing a lot to Blow Up (wind in the trees and all, I always think Blow Up).

But the film’s not really a throwback to 1970s Allen. It’s too different. There’s a definite lack of main character. The film’s attention oscillates between Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson (playing the titular characters) to the point each becomes forgotten while attention is on the other, even if there’s discussion of the character.

Hall’s the film’s closest thing to a main character. Between her uncertainty toward fiancé Chris Messina (in the film’s only comedic performance) and her infatuation with Javier Bardem, Hall gets the film’s best scenes. She’s the only actor who Allen pauses on, making sure her pensive, thoughtful expressions make an impression on the viewer. He does it a couple times I remember; her blinks are that wonderful cinema combination, when the actor and the director achieve something because of one another.

For the first half of the film, Bardem has little to do but be seductive, intelligent and beguiling. He does all three wonderfully, charming both Hall, Johansson and the viewer. He’s a strange character for Allen, as he’s so utterly devoid of cynicism. The film–and Bardem’s role in it–changes quite a bit when Penélope Cruz shows up.

Cruz’s character is an offscreen personality from almost the beginning of the film, so her actual presence is going to have to change things, but somehow–even as events become more sensational–they become less interesting. Johansson’s solid in the film, but she’s second fiddle to Hall here. Comparing the performances, what Johansson does with a big dramatic plot and what Hall does with a quiet one… it’s an incredible difference. Allen seems to notice too, not really giving Johansson any real meat.

And that Boca Burger mentality is what hurts the film. Allen starts to bring it around in the end, getting into real problems for Hall, but then lets the sensationalism back in. It’s too much of an exercise. He’s not trying for anything here, just spinning his wheels–and he spins them incredibly well, but the beginning suggests he’s going to bring it all together in the end. He sort of abandons Johansson at one point, when she’s become just too passive in the action.

Some of the problem is Cruz. She’s excellent in the film (a surprise), but she inhabits her role. The character’s so big before Cruz even appears on screen, once she does and is successful, it’s just too much. Given most of her scenes are with Johansson… the entire film goes adrift for a little while. Until Hall comes back and things are fine… and then Cruz comes back and they aren’t.

It’s a fantastic film–probably the most successful of Allen’s more recent narrative experiments–but his lack of interest in anything but execution is painfully obvious.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Woody Allen; director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Alain Bainée; produced by Letty Aronson, Gareth Wiley and Stephen Tenenbaum; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the Weinstein Company.

Starring Javier Bardem (Juan Antonio), Patricia Clarkson (Judy Nash), Penélope Cruz (Maria Elena), Kevin Dunn (Mark Nash), Rebecca Hall (Vicky), Scarlett Johansson (Cristina) and Chris Messina (Doug).


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