Rating: 3.5 stars
When it comes to the more recent works of Woody Allen, we film critics have begun to rely on a standard script. There’s the “he’s washed up!” line that came on the heels of such disappointments as Hollywood Ending and Anything Else. There’s the “it’s not half bad but he’ll never be truly great again” line that followed efforts like Melinda and Melinda and Sweet and Low Down. There is the “Woody’s back!” line that came breathlessly after Match Point.
I suspect that there will be more “He’s back!” enthusiam with Woody’s new film Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Such praise will be followed by more lines from the Woody review script: “Scarlett Johannson is his new muse!” (Oh yeah? Then how do you explain Scoop?) “He’s so energized by these foreign locations!” (Hmmm, then why was Cassandra’s Dream such a flop?)
So let’s try to avoid knee-jerk responses to his new work. Here’s how I see Woody today. He’s not as funny as early Woody, he’s not as artistically fertile as middle period Woody, and he clearly cranks out way too many films. These films are capable of being mediocre, good, and even great. Just don’t expect any patterns.
That being said, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is one of the good ones—and damn close to being great. Here Woody is exploring his favorite subject (other than himself)—love.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is smart, beautiful, and pragmatic. Her best friend Cristina (Scarlett Johannsson) is smart, beautiful, and wildly unpragmatic. Together, they embark on one last summer fling to Barcelona, where they meet artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). Although they have literally just met him, Juan propositions that they join him on a weekend getaway to the Spanish countryside. Vicky thinks he is brash and vulgar; Cristina thinks he is glamorous and exciting. Naturally, both young women will fall head-over-heels in love. Matters are complicated by the arrival of Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan’s fiery ex-wife.
The Spanish scenery is seductive in its own right, and Woody’s insights into human behavior, especially how our love lives play into our larger myths about ourselves, are spot on.
Some people may object to the travelogue-style voiceover that narrates the girls’ sexual and spiritual journey, but I found it amusing and droll.
As for Bardem, he injects a real sensual earthiness into his performance—the scenes between him and the two leads are quite captivating. And when you throw Penelope Cruz into the mix (check out the posters for the film to get a sense of her gloriously disruptive role in the proceedings), and what can you really say, but “muy caliente”?
Yes, a Woody Allen film that is smart and sly and all kinds of sexy. Woody is back! Oh no . . . wait.
For the complete Vicky Cristina Barcelona review, check out the September issue of Baltimore.