Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona has its charms, but it can fairly be described as all over the map. Though Allen himself hasn’t exactly been all over the map, the lifelong New Yorker has branched out since 1996’s Everyone Says I Love You shot in Venice and Paris. He shot three successive films in London and now this romantic dramedy in Barcelona. The change of locale pleasantly distracts from the annual realization that the latest Allen picture isn't all that it could be.
Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johanssen play Vicky and Cristina, American women on holiday in Barcelona. Grad student Vicky represents the cautious, neurotic Allen point of view. Though tempted to follow passing passions, the engaged Vicky is too fearful and conventional to pursue what she really wants. Cristina is Vicky's opposite, ready for anything and determined not to settle for a humdrum existence. One night at dinner, the two friends are propositioned by Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a suave painter who offers to whisk them both off to Oviedo for a romantic weekend, reasoning, "Life is short, life is dull, and love is full of pain. This is a chance for something special."
Both women wind up falling under his sway, but what looks to be a love triangle becomes further complicated by the return of the artist’s tempestuous ex-lover Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). It's Cruz who elevates the film to another level with her stormy moods. Vicki Cristina Barcelona is more or less a light drama, but Cruz's borderline character sends the film into a few good comic paroxysms (not to mention a bisexual fling). It's a shame that the schematic characters aren't as deep as the actors endeavor to make them (poor Patricia Clarkson seems to disappear into the film's cracks).
Spackled with ill-advised omniscient narration, parts of the film play like banal travelogue, albeit beautifully shot by Allen's latest cinematographer, Almodóvar vet Javier Aguirresarobe (in this scenic vein, the characters place a requisite emphasis on Gaudí). The director's fussiness is nearly overcome by Bardem's leadership in naturalistic acting, but right out of the gate the film establishes a pattern of telling rather than showing, with the characters constantly describing each other and themselves. At least Allen can still turn a phrase or two: it's a relief when Cristina busts out the unbelievable but comfortingly Allen-esque bedroom line "If you don't start undressing me soon, this is going to turn into a panel discussion."
So what exactly is Allen playing at here? His agenda is embedded in the observation of Juan Antonio's father that despite thousands of years of civilization, people "still haven't learned to love." The film is Allen's (latest) meditation on that frustration, the human natures of passion and trepidation, the vagaries of love and one’s hope that some meaning in life can be found to compensate for romantic disappointment. Only Maria Elena has a vocation that's driving and satisfying in equal measure; she's twice the painter that Juan Antonio is (and she draws out Cristina's talent for photography). Beautiful and talented: if only she didn't go into those homicidal rages. Read closely, this particular story ostensibly sympathizes with women while implying that their indecisive neuroses are the cause of all the frustration, with men their hapless victims. If not in sexual politics, at least in bleakness Allen shows equal opportunity, with all of the characters ultimately doomed to "chronic dissatisfaction."
Though meandering and relatively minor the latest Allen effort is ultimately worth seeing for Bardem and Cruz's humorous and passionate interpretation of mad love. It's just a shame that the mildly entertaining roundelay built around them doesn't make a greater contribution to the Allen canon. Perhaps the greatest compliment to be paid to Vicky Cristina Barcelona is that it serves as a spot-on emblem of Allen's own life philosophy: cling to the transient pleasures, as you're bound to be let down in the end.
Genius Products gives Woody Allen his Blu-ray debut with Vicki Cristina Barcelona. There's not much to say about the disc, which is typically devoid of any special features (Allen eschews them as a matter of course). The movie's the thing, and the transfer is quite gorgeous, lushly and accurately rendering the color scheme and providing a steady, clean and detailed image. Allen is also a stickler for simple audio, explaining the PCM 3.0 soundtrack, an oddity amongst new films on the hi-def format. Still, the soundtrack gets the job done in a charmingly quaint way that echoes the old-world sights on screen. Besides, this is the chance for film buffs to inaugurate their Woody Allen Blu-ray collection, which was excitement enough for me.
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