Here’s a sentence I wasn’t expecting to write: Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is… fun. It’s not sexy, despite all the buzz about the Scarlett Johansson/Javier Bardem/PenÃ©lope Cruz menage and sapphic snuggling between Johansson and Cruz, which, sorry to disappoint, consists only of an ungainly kiss. But it is an enjoyable fling of a film, and enjoyment is something that seemed to have dropped off Allen’s list of interests entirely. His European excursions post-“Match Point” haven’t lived up to that film’s promise of auteurist rejuvenation, but rather than try out more cultural ventriloquism this time around on the guitar, Allen approaches Barcelona in the same way as his lead characters as a place to visit, to enjoy, to take in as a tourist, always expecting to leave at the end.
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is something of a play date between typical Allen characters and ones from an AlmodÃ³var film. The Americans are Vicky (Rebecca Hall, wiping the floor with her more famous co-star), the sensible, responsible, engaged one, and her best friend Cristina (Johansson), the artistic dabbler in search of herself and doomed, wild romance. They occupy an income bracket in which it’s possible to spend the summer in Spain taking in GaudÃ, to effortlessly flee to Antibes for a few weeks to clear one’s head, and to grow weary of discussions of home purchases in Westchester. At an art opening, they run into an extremely Spanish painter, Juan Antonio, played by Javier Bardem on giggle-inducing perma-smolder. Juan Antonio dallies with Vicky (who makes him work for it) and then with Cristina (who doesn’t), seducing them with melancholy music, soulful talk of art and emotions and tales of his tempestuous relationship with his ex-wife Maria Elena (Cruz), who he still loves but can’t bear to be with. Well, until he is she storms back into his life, gloriously insane, and soon she’s moved in with him and an uneasy Cristina, for whose benefit Juan Antonio keeps barking “We speak English here!”
The film’s main pleasure, Bardem and Cruz are combustibly funny together, able to escalate from normal conversation into a red-faced shouting match in seconds. Cruz’s Maria Elena, in runny eyeliner and skimpy outfits, is wildly beautiful, wildly brilliant, wildly moody and wildly wild she, like Juan Antonio, is a cartoon, but one that jabs at all of the unspoken insecurities of the American girls, who worry that they lack substance and passion compared to these fiery European souls. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”‘s bohemian Spaniards have gorgeous houses, no noticeable sources of income and spend their days painting, writing poetry and arguing in cafes. It’s fantasy Europe, but Allen long ago staked his place in fantasy New York, and Vicky and Cristina, with all their self-conscious leisure to self-examine, are equally creatures of the latter. Narrated, via cheerily omniscient voiceover, like one long anecdote (or an episode of “Arrested Development”), the film doesn’t come to any particular point at all, other than that both girls have a good sense of when its the right time to go. New York’s there waiting, and, scary photos and all, I’m halfway looking forward to it.
[Photo: “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Weinstein Co, 2008]
+ “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (Festival-Cannes.fr)