Whatever your feelings about Woody Allen — and Lord knows I’ve had my ups and downs with his movies — it’s impossible to overestimate his influence on American comedy. It’s sort of ironic, because Allen isn’t always very funny, but his classic films proved that people will pay to watch characters do little other than talk about their problems — heck, we’ll even show up if the movie doesn’t come with one of those stereotypical Hollywood endings. When he’s on his game, Woody will convince you it’s a good idea to pay full ticket price for 90 minutes of wordy self-analysis — and you’ll probably even get a few belly laughs out of it.
Of course, Woody isn’t always on his game, and as he’s moved into the autumn of his career, he’s often gotten full credit for partial work, especially from critics who remember Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters and are grateful they no longer have to review stuff like Celebrity, Anything Else, or The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. It helps that Allen is so goddamn prolific that he essentially tapes over his failures as quickly as they happen, but he’s been on sort of a limited roll for the last 10 years or so, and because reviews for Vicky Cristina Barcelona were generally very enthusiastic — it sports an 81 percent at Rotten Tomatoes — I was looking forward to checking it out on DVD.
As it turns out, Vicky Cristina is the Woody Allen equivalent of a cinematic shrug. Nine times out of 10, when a movie kicks off with a voiceover, you can bank on it being a pretty lazy film, and this one is no exception. We learn all the important things about Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) in the movie’s first few minutes thanks to Allen’s omniscient narrator (voice provided by Christopher Evan Welch), who tells us that Vicky is the responsible, engaged one, Cristina is the erratic, passionate one, and they’re headed off to Barcelona for the summer. Vicky believes in “the beauty of commitment”; Cristina has resigned herself to emotional exposure in pursuit of true feeling. You get the idea — and you also know, even if you haven’t read a word about the movie before watching it, that they’re going to cross paths with one or more hunky Spaniards who will Change Their Lives Forever.
It’s just one hunky Spaniard, as it turns out — a bohemian painter named Juan Antonio (played by Javier Bardem, who outclasses and outshines everyone else onscreen, particularly Johansson, who seems to be changing from an actress into a blank canvas before our eyes). Cristina spots Juan Antonio at a gallery opening and gives him the eye, and he takes the opportunity to invite the two Americans away for a weekend of admiring art and lovemaking. Cristina accepts, Vicky balks, and if you can’t see where this is heading by now, then you haven’t seen many movies.
Allen does throw in a wrinkle in the shapely form of Penelope Cruz, who plays Juan Antonio’s insane ex-wife. Cruz adds a dash of unpredictability to what is otherwise a very conventional story, giving Allen the opportunity to move from one triangle to the other and back again. You can’t help thinking that only deeply sick or selfish people would treat each other this way, and that makes it more difficult to step inside the movie — but if Allen’s screenplay is guilty of shuffling its protagonists like cards, they’re at least very pretty cards to look at, a situation that director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe takes full advantage of by bathing the stars in oceans of warm Gallic light.
If Vicky Cristina‘s biggest sin was a hard-to-fathom approach to sexual politics, it still wouldn’t be so bad; what ultimately sinks the movie is Allen himself. The repeated voiceover interludes grow tiresome, and the script is unusually clunky — at one point, asked to explain his poet father’s decision not to publish his work as revenge against the human race, Bardem actually has to say, “Because after thousands of years of civilization, they still haven’t learned to love.” There are also moments where Allen doesn’t seem to trust the audience to understand what he’s trying to do — one typically talky love scene ends with an awkward slow-motion fade, for instance, and the inevitable sapphic love scene is as flat as the actresses are not. Allen does show flashes of smarts, occasionally showing restraint with his dialogue, but for vast, yawning stretches of the movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels like he just threw some beautiful people together and tried to come up with a Big Statement as he went along.
For me, that statement never came. It offers the standard Allen framework — people talk, they lust, they talk, they fuck, they talk — with very little meat around it. Others have suggested that Allen is trying to say something about the intractable human heart here, but if that’s true, then all of his protagonists are such assholes that the message is too specific to resonate. It’s more likely, I think, that Allen ran out of room to tell his story here — hence that obnoxious narrator — or he was just looking for a reason to film the Spanish countryside. Either way, Vicky Cristina Barcelona isn’t anything more than a sometimes mildly amusing diversion. Worth checking out for budding cinematographers, but that’s about it.
DVD Extras: None.