I admire the persistence of the septugenarian (born in 1935) Woody Allen in making movies he wants to make. I am more dubious about the number of times some critics have proclaimed a “return to top form” for him. His first film shot in England, “Match Point” (2005), was, IMO, good but overpraised. The next two (annual) movies were more disappointing. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, shot in Catalonia , was again overpraised by critics, and its successors “Midnight in Paris,” “To Rome with Love,” and “Blue Jasmine” (shot in San Francisco and Marin County) even more so.
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (which should either be “Vicky and Cristina’s Summer in Barcelona” or “Vicky, Cristina; Barcelona”) has some great travelogue shots of Barcelona and Oveido by Javier Aguirresarobe. Alas, it also has the bleached out (and I don’t just mean her bottle-blonde hair) Scarlett Johansson, whom I consider has been way overpraised in such movies as (the way overpraised) “Lost in Translation” and who joined the Woody Allen troupe in “Match Point.” It does not surprise me the Penélope Cruz mops up the screen with Johannson, or that Rebecca Hall again (see “The Prestige”) eclipses her.
I guess that I should say something about the very clichéd story: young Americans who consider themselves worldly, Vicky (Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) are hosted for a summer by Vicky’s expatriate aunt (or something) Judy Nash (Patricia Clarkson). Vicky seeks stability and is engaged to an affluent young businessman, Doug (Chris Messina) back in New York. Cristina is a romantic of the masochistic kind, seeking to suffer. Cristina also wants to be an artist, but has no particular talent. She has spent the last year writing, directing, and starring in a short film she realized was no good.
When she hears that the smoldering painter Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem in a red shirt) was stabbed by his ex-wife, she is fascinated. Drawing him over in a restaurant after the art opening at which she first glimpsed him, she is thrilled by his invitation to the two young Americans to fly with him to Oveido for the weekend.
Vicky is appalled not only by the assumption that she will want to hop in bed with him, but that he was correct about Cristina wanting to be swept off her feet. Vicky goes along (through a clichéd thunderstorm) to try to restrain Cristina… and ends up being the one Juan Carlos beds on the very romantic weekend.
Juan Carlos gets Cristina, back in Barcelona. She has moved in with him when the notorious ex-wife, Maria Elena (Cruz) shows up (after a suicide attempt).
Vicky is confused by the dash of European Romance, and less than delighted that Doug decided to join her and have a civil wedding in Barcelona (the big blowout will occur back in suburban New York). Aunt (?) Judy turns out to be tired of her marriage to a successful businessman and, living vicariously, works overtime to get Vicky back with Juan Carlos, after Cristina has grown bored or confused and decamped for Paris for the rest of the summer.
Even in my brief summary, American Innocence and glamorous European Experience must be obvious, very familiar tropes. Didn’t Henry James write this novel four or six times? Admittedly, without sex scenes, but the sex scenes in the movie are shot very decorously (one in an oven door reflection…). And there is a very obtrusive narration ensuring the viewer/listener maintains ironic distance from the soap opera onscreen.
The rather snarky voiceover narration could have been worse: it could have been delivered by Allen (rather than Christopher Evan Welch). It is a flagrant violation of the “Show, don’t tell” injunction and quite unnecessary, in that what is told is generally obvious and almost always shown (before or after it is told). My commitment to the “Show, don’t tell” commandment has been softened by the very literary use of ironic voiceovers in a number of French films of the 1950s and 60s (the most flagrant of which is probably Jean Cocteau in “Les enfants terribles”) as well as the first-person voiceovers in many French and American noirs of the 1940s and 50s. Thus, although regarding it as unnecessary, the novelistic narration bothers me less than it has other epinionators. I think that the narration Allen wrote shows contempt for the characters and their relationships, or perhaps just his disbelief that love conquers anything.
The restrained and the wild American are clichés, as are the seductive, experienced European artist(s-Maria Elena claims to have provided Juan Antonio his way of seeing and painting). The parts of the ostensible Catalans, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, are underwritten, but Bardem and Cruz are formidable screen actors, who can do much with little. Cruz does not appear until the 51st of the movie’s 95 minutes, seemingly having parachuted in from a Pedro Amodóvar movie, but when she does, she pretty much takes over. (Her efforts have been rewarded with a best supporting-actress Oscar nomination. And, rather startlingly, the movie won the “best comed or musical” Golden Globe award.)
Although Maria Elena stirs things up, the movie has a lackluster, safe ending. I was hoping for something more, especially after Cruz arrived onscreen. For Americans in Barcelona, I’d have to recommend Whit Stillman’s less predictable “Barcelona” (in which some young Americans actually live in Gaudi’s apartment building, La Perdrera). VCB is more predictable than Susan Seidelman’s “Gaudi Afternoon,” but with Bardem and Cruz, I’d say that VCB is a slightly better movie. VCB is somewhat entertaining and very picturesque. It’s just not top-flight Woody Allen (“Purple Rose of Cairo” is my favorite; “Hannah and Her Sisters,” Husbands and Wives,” “Manhattan,” “Annie Hall,” and “Interiors” are the first tier of those I remember, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Bullets Over Broadway” the top of the second tier; “Alice.” “Shadows and Fog,” “September” as the worst of those I’ve seen).
Woody Allen does not believe in doing director commentaries or allowing “making of: featurettes, so the only DVD bonus features are a few trailers for other movies.
The movie shows Barcelona at its best, but it is more than a bit strange that Vicky, who is supposedly a graduate student doing Catalan studies does not know any Catalán (or much Spanish), and that the supposed “natives” speak Spanish rather than Catalán. Cristina seems to learn nothing of either language even living with Juan Antonio (and Maria Elena).