A life without art and passionate love is a life unfulfilled. After seeing Woody Allen’s new romantic comedy Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he most certainly concurs. Best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) vacation to Barcelona for a few months to experience another culture. Vicky is a graduate student engaged to be married, there to explore and study, while Cristina is a failed actress (a re-dux of her role in Matchpoint?); a free-spirit unencumbered by a past filled with heartache. Once there, they encounter a painting Spaniard named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) whom is equal parts intriguing and charming. He immediately proposes what most men would do in his situation, offering them a weekend getaway filled with exploration of art and love-making. They are to “depart in an hour,” he says matter-of-factly.
Despite the adamant protests of Vicky, off they go and things unspool as you would expect, sort of. Vicky and Cristina both have their admirations for Juan Antonio, but when his ex-wife Maria Elena shows up (played with gusto by Penelope Cruz), things get a little crazy, literally. Ella esta loca to say the least. She once stabbed Juan Antonio in the back just like a scene from an Agatha Christie novel. Having just tried to kill herself, Juan Antonio accepts her back into his home to the dismay of Cristina, who is now living with him. Can you say – love triangle?
The film picks up momentum when Cruz in on screen. She has some of the best lines in the movie and delivers a tongue-twisted, comedic performance. Allen recycles his Annie Hall roots using subtitles in the scenes she is in. They distract from the performances some but do heighten the humor quotient. Whether it’s exploring art, love, or Spain, the pic represents Allen’s best work since Matchpoint. His lens is steady and focused, allowing the cityscapes to punctuate the mood rather than using camera tomfoolery. Eschewing Hollywood ethics, Allen also shows he is in total control of the project by breaking one of the golden rules of filmmaking, via the use of narration. The voiceover gets tired a few minutes in but thankfully all but disappears as the movie gains steam.
The relative unknown Hall is a scene-stealer throughout (tough to do given the cast) and is sure to land more roles based on her performance here. Her uptight Vicky shines, rattling off witty, disapproving quips even as her defenses begin to unravel in Juan Antonio’s presence. When she initially says that JA is “not attractive,” we know she feels differently. Eventually, his absence does indeed make her heart grow fonder.
In a small role, Patricia Clarkson plays what is essentially a cautionary tale to Vicky. Her Judy is trapped in a passionless marriage and dreamingly longs to free herself from its strains. While she is past the point of taking said action, it becomes her mission to show Vicky the light in this regard. Kudos to Chris Messina as he nails his part as Vicky’s man at home, a nice guy and corporate tool stuck in the ideals of America.
This is a film that wants to make you objectively question your life daring you to live to the fullest. It is unflinching in its touting of the creative arts and provoking a pursuit of your physical desires with equal aplomb. It doesn’t do a heck of a lot for the monogamist in you though, even if it openly shows the potential destructive nature of living passionately.
Admittedly, it is not without a few issues. I would have liked to see Johansson and Hall switch roles. They are such polar opposites and it would have been a change for Johansson to play the one with the constricted emotions. It was obvious from the outset that her sultry Cristina would succumb to Juan Antonio’s come-ons and her indecisive siren felt all too familiar. Also, Vicky and Cristina are supposed to be best friends but that is never fully realized. They supposedly share the same views in virtually all ways other than politics and love, however with love as a main theme here, we can’t buy into their close-knit friendship.
Consider the business casual khakis and polo crowd forewarned as Woody takes to mocking the corporate world. The writer-director (no acting this time) champions a European lifestyle here, blunt in his treatment of a clone-like quality in some American lives, which the auteur disdains. The characters on screen are forced to examine if they are truly experiencing deep felt passion in a situation rather than merely an obsession or infatuation. Allen clearly wants the audience to examine this within themselves as well. Now how did that sales-pitch golf outing with the boss go?
In the recently released Step Brothers, the two lead males essentially proclaim John Stamos as the sexiest man alive, but if they saw this movie they would have to consider Bardem the worthy title-holder. His Juan Antonio is cool, confident, and in control at all times. While he claims that his marriage to Maria Elena brought too much conflict into their lives, you tend to think a guy like him could handle it anyway but simply chooses not to. The fact that Allen teases us with the possibility of further probing into that notion without capitalizing on it, is a slight disappointment. Nevertheless, with Barcelona serving as the perfect backdrop, it’s hard not to fall victim to the film’s charms.