Vicky Cristina Barcelona
First screened and reviewed in August 2008
Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Messina, Kevin Dunn, Josep Maria Domènech, Pablo Schreiber, voice of Christopher Evan Welch. Screenplay: Woody Allen.

Twitter Capsule: Pleasant diversion but no return to form. Banally shot. Half-baked script. Actors blocked from going deep.

VOR:   Heavy acclaim; others see more in it than I do. The praise feels circular: you're supposed to see Vicky because it's been anointed an Allen worth seeing. But why?

This review is for Kasey, who was such great company.

Photo © 2008 The Weinstein Company
No, he isn't. "Back," that is. I don't suppose it's categorically impossible for Allen one day to recover the ingenuity and reserves of feeling, whether gentle (Purple Rose) or bitter (Husbands and Wives), which once suffused his movies, but I can't see a single sign that this will ever happen—neither in the films he's been making nor in the touristic, lackadaisical, tortuously financed way he now makes them. A "comeback" film like Bullets over Broadway was possible because he hadn't actually gone anywhere or sapped his wells of inspiration in the years preceding. He had just been devoting them to somber, widely unloved, but mostly bracing films like Another Woman and Husbands that didn't rhyme with his devotees' sense of what he should be making. I recognize that some people harbor similar feelings about the long, straggly line of recent misfires, but I just can't see what they could mean. The crude acting, lazy location shooting, and belabored symbolism of Match Point, the stunted vulgarities of Jade Scorpion, the underlit community theater of Anything Else: what's to love except our own nurtured fondness for what used to be, and our generous impulse to help dig Allen out of the hole he's fallen into?

Of all the recent Allen movies, Vicky Cristina Barcelona most reminds me of Melinda and Melinda, partly because it isn't a "bad" movie (Jade Scorpion and Anything Else inarguably are) so much as a stalwart mediocrity, but moreso because the conceptual point of departure sits flagrantly on the screen, barking out its rudimentary recipe without bringing that recipe to life. Granted, the undernourished ideas of Tragedy and Comedy that Melinda kept pretending to explore were fundamentally flatter than the two seeds Allen has started from here: the unhappiness that comes from not knowing what you want, a state of being known as "Vicky," and the unhappiness that comes from only knowing what you definitely don't want, which we, following Allen, shall refer to as "Cristina." (Best to stop wondering now about "Barcelona," which, like Match Point's London, is exactly the connect-the-dots vision of the city I would construct despite having never been there, and lensed with irritating over-brightness by the usually reliable Javier Aguirresarobe.) I appreciate the film's ambitions of teasing apart two states of melancholia that could easily pass as the same thing, but unfortunately, not long into Vicky Cristina Barcelona, that's essentially what they feel like, despite all protestations to the contrary. Cristina even gets a long speech about not knowing what she wants but knowing that it's not this, and the film refuses to acknowledge that it has just eaten its own tail.

Jane Smiley or somebody might have written a sharp, flavorful short story on this subject; Diane Johnson already wrote a marvelous, light-footed novel about it called Le Divorce, which played out virtually the same tensions between two American sisters living in Paris, without loudspeakering its themes quite so garishly. That Le Divorce made for such a pedestrian movie implies that a psychological parsing like this works better on the page unless you have a truly top-flight and genuinely empathetic director at the helm. Allen, sadly, hasn't shown any real empathy since Alice, which was almost 20 years ago. In any event, he's not serious about pursuing the projects he pretends to set up for himself. The actual dichotomies at stake between Rebecca Hall's Vicky and Scarlett Johansson's Cristina are far less lofty and accordingly less rewarding: 1) How to take expensive care of your lustrous brunette hair vs. How to fry and coarsen your hair through expensive over-bleaching, and 2) How to pout and stall for time while keeping aloof from what you might want vs. How to make love, cohabitate, and expose your own callowness with abandon, without ever making contact with anything interesting about yourself, or with anything credible about the people around you.

Vicky, especially as played by Hall, generally above and beyond the call for Brittle, makes quite a show of resisting the siren song of pleasure. This seems surprising, given her avid interest in Barcelona's architecture and cuisine (somehow, in Allen's mind, her dilettantish doting adds up to a "master's thesis"), but it soon becomes clear that Vicky's research is just a plot device to get her, Cristina, and the filmmakers to Spain. It never occurs to Allen to read the different facets of her character against each other, the intellectualizing of pleasure against the actual acceptance of it, which is why her ambivalence never feels remotely organic. Hall rarely stops looking and sounding like an actress playing the angles of an underwritten role. She does nail that rigid, dry way some people have of hearing intimate confidences and responding with a spooky faux-concern, redolent of blithe privilege. "I'm very sorry to hear that," she's always saying, whether or not she is or has any reason to be. Hall also finds the right way to play Vicky's confession that she finds the devil-may-care Cristina "courageous," persuading us that Vicky admires but also envies her friend, and maybe feels scared to understand her. Then again, the screenplay positions this moment so late and so arbitrarily that the actresses miss any chance to explore this ambiguous revelation or its after-effects. Most of their conversations from this point forward play out in dumb-show while an unseen narrator natters on about them, as though Allen is determined to protect us from any spark of spontaneous life between his protagonists.

Certainly we never feel that Cristina is "courageous," even as she proves catholic enough to move in with a painter she barely knows, Javier Bardem's Juan Antonio. She also rolls with the indefinite boarding of his volatile ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) in the house they are sharing, despite the obvious facts that he is still in love with her and she is still possessive of him. Again, Allen cuts away from the most promising scene, when Maria Elena reveals that she nicked Cristina's suitcase and pored over all of her belongings on her first night in the house. Cruz, in a sprightly and moderately clever performance, milks the moment well for comedy, but Allen immediately intrudes to neutralize it for drama. He makes of the three-way relationship a diverting semi-sitcom, clearly relishing a moment of group sexuality even though he lacks the temerity to grow it organically from his story; Cristina brings it up in abstracted flashback. Moreover, he shows no impulse to plumb the household for any visual dynamics of three-way voyeurism, fetishism, suspicion, or artistic fecundity, even though we hear that Cristina's lollygagging presence and her so-so photographs have unleashed remarkable expressive energies in Juan Antonio, especially. Cruz has some low-level fun in the scenes where Maria Elena trains Cristina's eye and walks her through the emulsification process. Still, even these scenes play as though Allen is writing an eleventh-grader's book report on The Unbearable Lightness of Being, based primarily on having fast-forwarded to the Good Parts from the film. You know the ones.

Long ago, Allen became interested in "the artist" only as a theme and rhetorical figure. The actual making of art no longer grips him, whether as his subject or as embodied by his own films. It may actually bore him. A few critics have noted the puerile arrogance with which Allen offers us the tertiary character of Juan Antonio's father, a poet who refuses to publish so as to punish the cruel, unloving world that wouldn't recognize insight or aesthetic sense, much less would they respond with sensitivity. Given the circular logic of that reasoning, though, I think this figure is more emblematic of Allen's soft-spot for docile actors and other artists who don't gum up the works of his own talky, increasingly limited scripts by doing anything so audacious as creating with them. His actors feel stifled from probing as deeply into their characters as they once did, or from feeling deeply about their scripted passions and pursuits. They seem not to identify with what he has written, or only sporadically. Allen thus casts himself in the untenable position of attracting great artists but making them visibly tentative, less focused on presenting a complex persona than on not irritating a boss who seems not very interested in nurturing or collaborating. This essential cowardice of Allen's, even more off-putting than the clichéd but vociferous artist-as-cad theses of Sweet and Lowdown and Deconstructing Harry, also helps to explain his enduring fascination with Johansson, an actress who lately forebears from doing any acting. She is perky and adroit at evoking Cristina's casual masochism as she relents to Maria Elena's arrival in her own lovenest, and she threatens to come alive during a candid speech about confronting the fact that she is fundamentally untalented in any of the artistic media that she admires. Usually, though, she's the perpetual Johansson cipher, and I am starting to feel embarrassed at how famous she's become for embodying her writer-directors' notions of a comely but listless existence. She's the go-to girl for depressed vapidity, and though she certainly gives Allen "sex" in the way Ginger Rogers was celebrated for giving it to Fred Astaire, he fails utterly at giving her "class" in return, or at giving her almost anything except serial opportunities to expose her own averageness. That she fell shy of the dramatic and comic figures that Allen cut out for her in Match Point and Scoop was mostly to be expected; that she's such a wan placeholder for inert sensuality, seemingly her stock in trade, is dolorous indeed.

I can't say I'm much more envious of Hall, who follows in the footsteps of Melinda's Radha Mitchell as a promising, rather literary actress whom Allen has a smart instinct to cast but an inability to feed. She leaves the film seeming a smidge less interesting than she was when it started. Bardem, Cruz, and the entrancing Patricia Clarkson survive unscathed; they seem to know that this material isn't worth pushing very hard. Barcelona itself feels slightly besmirched, as though Allen arrived and found nothing more interesting to shoot than the cover images on his guidebook. One could almost edit out the discrete montage sequences where the principals visit Gaudí's churches or survey the cityscape in high, wide angles and replace them with different sight-seeing montages to gratify different global markets: Vicky Cristina Bermuda, Vicky Cristina Caracas, Vicky Cristina Thessaloniki. The best lines, often denoted by quick rather than flashy delivery, would survive almost any cultural idiom, as when the randy Juan Antonio cajoles a typically gunshy Vicky, "Perhaps after we make love your feelings will become clearer to you?" Cruz's malicious send-up of the Chinese language might rule out Vicky Cristina Beijing, but so would the smog. In any case, her line constitutes an impressively bitter pill of instant characterization, worth holding onto. She stares Johansson down, wondering what kind of blonde Western insect would bother learning such an unromantic tongue. As I'm only now conceding, Vicky Cristina Barcelona has its momentary pleasures, its modest glints of sauciness if not actual wit. I didn't actively wish I was somewhere else while I was watching it, as has been my customary response to latter-day Allen. But then again, if ever a picture was designed to seduce you into travel—within the world, within your mentality—it's Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The movie half-heartedly conjures several paths and destinations, but I didn't for a minute want to explore them. It's hard to get worked up about a trip when the travel agent himself is too bored to sell you on it. Grade: C

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Supporting Actress: Penélope Cruz

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Rebecca Hall
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): Javier Bardem
Best Supporting Actress: Penélope Cruz

Other Awards:
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Cruz); Best Screenplay
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Supporting Actress (Cruz)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actress (Cruz; also cited for Elegy)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actress (Cruz)
National Board of Review: Best Supporting Actress (Cruz)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Supporting Actress (Cruz)

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