What Woody Allen just doesn’t seem to get anymore—overlooking the fact that his dialog is basically paraphrased versions of the same stuff he fed us back in his heyday, yet not as funny—seems to be women. The girls in Allen flicks no longer come across as real or convincing, or anything more than the approximation of a dithering old mensch who’s clearly lost his mojo. Scarlett Johannson seems to be feeling the brunt of this—she was asked to play a quirky sex-pot who acted and sounded just like Allen in 2006’s Scoop, and now she’s been called upon to play an absurdly oblivious and dubiously insecure bombshell in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Johannson plays Cristina; relative newcomer Rebecca Hall plays Vicky. While taking in the sights and sounds of Barcelona, Cristina takes in the sight of suave abstract painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who eyes her back. Finally, Juan Antonio makes his way over to Cristina and Vicky’s table, and—spur-of-the-moment—invites them both to travel on his plane to Oviedo, where they will “drink wine” and “make love.” “Who will make love?” Vicky queries, to which Juan Antonio confidently replies, “Hopefully the three of us.” Vicky, being the sensible one of the duo, writes the guy off right away—she’s engaged to be married at summer’s end—but Cristina, being the character who Woody’s imbued with an absurd amount of acceptance and curiosity (and did I mention insecurity?), takes Juan Antonio up on his offer. Of course, a third of the title would be wasted without her, so Vicky tags along.
Vicky Cristina is meant to be Woody’s steamy three-way movie, and all the actors are game. But the fact is Allen can’t seem to write a three-dimensional character anymore to save his life, and it hurts the movie badly; everyone’s defined by their quirks and eccentricities, and when they try to break free of them it all feels forced and contrived. Or, in some cases, there’s no attempt to transcend stereotypes in the slightest. Take Maria Elena, for instance, a blustery femme—and Juan Antinio’s ex-lover—played by Penelope Cruz, a fine actress who deserved a shower of awards for her performance in Pedro Almodovar’s Volver two years ago. Here, Cruz is asked to screech obnoxiously—and spout Spanish obscenities at an arriba arriba-rate—because that’s what Spanish women do, I guess. Her character is given no nuance; she’s just a Spanish nutter who serves the plot in a contrived and ridiculous way (but I’ll get there in a minute).
In Oviedo, it’s Cristina, as expected, who first goes after Juan Antonio. Apparently, she’s really into intellectual guys, artists, creators, but not because she’s engaged by them in any emotional way. It’s because she likes the image of being with someone of that caliber, perhaps because she feels there’s no hope for her herself to accomplish anything. Vicky tags along as Juan Antonio shows the girls around Oviedo, taking them to all sorts of gorgeous locales and architectural wonders located on the island. This is as good a time as any to interject, and to explain that we don’t really see any of these sights—Vicky Cristina isn’t a scenic film—because each touristy sequences is executed with montage, and explained to us in play-by-play narrations that tell us things like “that afternoon, they all went for a walk,” because apparently we can’t see for ourselves that they’re walking.
If this film really was Woody Allen’s triumphant comeback, as everyone has been calling it, this fan would be praising it. Unfortunately, Vicky Critsina is nothing more than a contrived lark, filmed like a postcard, with beautiful people struggling to spew Allen’s very stale dialog.
Vicky, still unmoved by Juan Antonio (despite his suaveness), is forced to spend some time with the handsome lug when Cristina succumbs to food poisoning and spends the day sick in bed. Of course, because all of Allen’s women seem to be just begging for a man to break down their self-reliant walls (if they had any to begin with), Vicky succumbs to Juan Antonio, seduced by the gentle picking of a Spanish guitar—she says it “moves” her. Both are convinced that it’s to be a one-shot encounter, however, and they try their best to forget about it.
Vicky Cristina then very quickly becomes a pile-up of contrivances, most notably for the unlikely situation Allen constructs, in which Juan Antonio, Maria Elena, and Cristina, end up sharing a home as well as a relationship, which somehow fulfills them. But Allen doesn’t depict this union as a time of sexual awakening, or emotional exploration; it’s merely a phase for Cristina, who sleeps with Maria Elena once, and, apparently, for no real reason other than to have a nice cinematic moment in a dark room, while the two develop pictures—this is also only explained to us using flashback, as Cristina recounts the occurrence to Vicky and her disgusted, conservative husband. Is Vicky jealous of this experience? Her feelings for Juan Antonio extend long after their one night of passion, but what of this lesbian encounter, is she at all curious? We get no reaction from her, and the entire notion of lesbianism is swiftly discarded. This part of the film, which many critics cite as being the most thought-provoking work Allen has done in decades, is in fact the exact opposite: Allen doesn’t seem to care about any ideas the act conjures, only the prospect of having Cruz and Johannson lock lips on camera.
If this film really was Woody Allen’s triumphant comeback, as everyone has been calling it, this fan would be praising it. Unfortunately, Vicky Critsina is nothing more than a contrived lark, filmed like a postcard, with beautiful people struggling to spew Allen’s very stale dialog. As has so often been the case with this formula, you get a few gems—some lines that prove Allen hasn’t completely lost it. However, the fact is, when you think that this is the same guy who wrote, directed and starred in 1992’s Husbands and Wives, perhaps the most insightful relationship movie ever made, it’s an insult to say that a film like Vicky Cristina is a “return to form.”