Like one of his earlier, funnier films: Vicky Cristina Barcelona ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 23, 2008)

Ay, mama.

Dare I say it? Woody Allen’s new film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is his wisest, sexiest and most engaging romantic comedy in years. Okay…truth? To rate it on a sliding scale: as far as his own particular brand of genial bedroom farces go, it may not be in quite the same league as, let’s say, Hannah and Her Sisters, but it handily blows the boudoir doors off of A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy.

The Barcelona-bound Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are two young Americans who have decided to take a summer breather in the form of a Mediterranean getaway. Vicky, engaged to be married in the fall, is enjoying her last holiday as a single woman, and is looking forward to indulging her scholarly interest in Catalan architecture (she has a Gaudi fixation). Cristina is taking a mental health break after self-producing and starring in a short film (which “she hates”) about the Meaning of Love. The women are warm friends, but polar opposites. Vicky is practical, analytical and guarded; a no-nonsense, borderline control freak. Cristina is adventurous and free-spirited, but suffers a bevy of neuroses and insecurities. In their own symbiotic manner, Vicky and Cristina are really two sides of the same coin.

Enter seasoned coin-flipper Javier Bardem, who drops the cattle prod and picks up an artist’s brush for a return to his main forte-portraying a smoldering heart breaker with the soul of a poet. In this outing, Bardem is Juan Antonio, a lusty Spanish painter who espies the two women in a Barcelona restaurant one sultry evening. Eschewing the usual small talk, he strolls up to their table and announces his sincere wish that the two of them come away with him in his private plane for a romantic weekend on a Spanish isle.

The incredulous Vicky bristles at the presumptuous come-on; Cristina shrugs off her friend’s warnings and votes for calling Juan Antonio on his bluff. What the hell, they’re on vacation-why not venture a little spontaneity (besides, it’s Javier Bardem, fer chrissake). Against her better judgment, Vicky reluctantly acquiesces to her friend, and off they go.

What ensues that weekend ultimately changes the lives of all three; not to mention any previous notions they may have had about los misterios del amor. Things really get interesting when Juan Antonio’s tempestuous ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) enters the mix

Allen’s playful screenplay deftly addresses the age old question: Are human beings really monogamous by nature? Is it realistic (or even fair) to expect one Significant Other to nurture and fulfill all of our physical and intellectual needs? And what’s wrong with occasionally breaking the mold of what constitutes a “relationship” between consenting adults? Jesus Cristos lizards, I’m sounding like Dr. Phil here…but you get the gist.

To be sure, this is a perennially popular theme in film; Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim being the most famous example and most obvious touchstone here. Also, the contrast of the voluptuous and almost shockingly blonde Johansson against the deep azure of the Mediterranean recalls Godard’s similar utilization of Bardot. Then again, Allen has made no secret of his long time infatuation with European cinema; to paraphrase the Woodman himself, “Hey, he had to mold himself after someone!” There are worse influences.

After three films in a row, I have now grumpily accepted Scarlett Johansson as Allen’s latest muse (we all know how he gets obsessed with his leading ladies). Is it just me, or does she always have the dazed look of someone who has just been shaken awake from a nap? Don’t get me wrong, the camera really loves her (her translucent beauty is a DP’s dream) but I find her husky monotone a bit stultifying at times. Perhaps her “method” is too subtle for me? Or am I just pining too much for the halcyon days of Diane Keaton?

Rebecca Hall (a Brit, actually) is a wonderful seriocomic actress, and someone to keep an eye on. She’s like a less twitchy Parker Posey. I think Cruz should get an Oscar nod for her work here (she’s that good). The Bardem and Cruz reunion is comedy gold (their first onscreen pairing since Jamon, Jamon in 1992). Wisely, Allen gives them several scenes where they get to showcase their formidable talents while speaking in their native tongue; their performances really jump out of the screen in those moments. He is smart enough to understand an unfortunate anomaly that sometimes occurs when accomplished foreign actors are cast in American productions: their broken English often gets unfairly perceived as stilted acting.

I think Woody is back. And he’s made something that (sadly) is a bit of an anomaly itself at the multiplex these days: A hot date movie for grown-ups. So call the sitter, already!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *