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 chicks in Allen’s 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 Johansson seems to be feeling the brunt of this — asked to play a quirky sexpot, who acts and sounds just like Allen in 2006’s Scoop. Now, she’s called upon to play an absurdly oblivious and dubiously insecure bombshell in his latest movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Johansson is Cristina; relative newcomer Rebecca Hall plays Vicky; and both are on vacation for the summer in Barcelona. While taking in the sights and sounds of the city, Cristina also takes in the sight of suave abstract painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who eyes her back. Finally, he makes his way over to their table, and — spur-of-the-moment — invites them both to Oviedo on his plane, 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 (not to 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 Barcelona 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 voluptuous, sumptuous performance in Pedro Almodovar’s Volver. Here, Cruz is asked to screech obnoxiously — and spout Spanish obscenities at an arriba-arriba-rate — because that’s what Spanish women do, apparently, to Woody’s mind. Her character is given no nuance; she’s just a crazy Spanish nutter, who serves the plot in a contrived and ridiculous way (but we’ll get there in a minute).
Once 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, seemingly, likes the image of being with someone of that caliber, perhaps because she feels there’s no hope for herself. 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 — VCB isn’t scenic — because each touristy sequence is executed via montage, and explained to us in play-by-play narration 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). 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 (yuck). Both are convinced that it’s to be a one-shot encounter, however, and they try their best to forget about it.
From here, VCB 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, despite the character bases laid, apparently fulfills them. But Allen doesn’t depict this union as a time of either sexual awakening or emotional exploration; it’s merely a phase for Cristina, who sleeps with Maria Elena once, and, 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 female-female encounter: is she at all curious? We get no reaction from her, and the entire notion of gay or bi is swiftly discarded.
This part of the film, which many critics cite as being the most thought-provoking work Allen has committed 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 Johansson lock lips on camera. It this all sounds like Woody bashing, the fact is, this writer is a big Allen fan, and if this film really was his triumphant comeback, as so many has been calling it, than praise would certainly be merited. Unfortunately, VCB is nothing more than a contrived lark, filmed like a postcard, with beautiful people struggling to spew Allen’s very stale dialogue. As is the case every time Allen applies this formula, you get a few gems — some lines that prove Allen hasn’t completely lost it. However, when you think consider that this is the same guy who wrote, directed, and starred in something as sublime as 1992’s Husbands and Wives, perhaps the most insightful relationship movie ever made, it’s an utter insult to suggest that a film like VCB is a “return to form.”
Last Word: A contrived and dopey lark, not a return-to-form for Allen as many have suggested. Shot like a postcard, with lots of beautiful people — Scarlett, Penelope, Javier, and newcomer Rebecca Hall — but its characters are one-dimensional, and its circumstances are forced. It may be that Allen has little left to say about relationships and sexuality that’s interesting or thought-provoking.