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Wednesday, March 4, 2009
  DVD Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

I’m not a Woody Allen fan, and I don’t mean that as a euphemistic way of saying I don’t like his movies, but rather it’s an admission that Woody Allen is one of those filmmakers who, despite being acclaimed and beloved by a great many film buffs, for one reason or another I’ve just never gotten around to seeing his movies. (I think the one Woody Allen movie I’ve seen is Deconstructing Harry, which I didn’t really care for, but I realize that it’s widely considered one of his minor films; Annie Hall it ain’t.) The reason I mention all of this is to convey that my context for viewing the neurotic New Yorker’s (I think he lives in Europe now actually) latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, will therefore be a bit different from most reviews, because I can really only look at it on its own, so if you’re looking to find out if it’s better or worse than Match Point or Manhattan, I can’t really help you.

Anyway, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is one of the “new” spate of Woody Allen movies, meaning it doesn’t feature the writer/director in any on-screen role and it’s set in Europe. The story follows two young American women, Vicky and Cristina (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, respectively), best friends traveling through Spain on vacation. Vicky is the responsible one, the pragmatist with a fiancé and sensible condominium waiting for her back in New York City, while Cristina is a flighty would-be bohemian who bounces from man to man, unable to remain satisfied with any one guy for more than a short while. While on vacation, the two gals are propositioned by a handsome Spanish artist named Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem, who couldn’t be more different here from his Oscar-winning turn in No Country for Old Men), who invites the pair back to his villa in a nearby town for a weekend of wine and sex. Vicky, predictably, is aghast at his bold request, but Cristina, just as predictably, is intrigued. Long story short, they end up both going (Vicky to keep an eye on Cristina, Cristina to sleep with Juan Antonio), but things turn out…..differently. And eventually Juan Antonio’s ex-wife (Penelope Cruz), who he’s rumoured to have tried to kill, shows up to reinsert herself into his life, and for fear of spoiling major plot points, I’ll only say that things just get even more complicated from there.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a sex comedy, but I don’t mean that term in the American Pie sense (the word “urbane” came to mind a lot while watching it); it’s not vulgar, but rather is about sex and relationships. I guess this sort of thing is old hat for Woody Allen at this point, but I was quite refreshed at a movie about actual adults doing and talking about this stuff rather than teenagers or, even worse, infantilized adults doing and talking about this stuff.

I really had no idea what to expect from Vicky Cristina Barcelona (though the romance-novel vibe of the DVD box art had me worried I was in for a “chick flick,” but luckily I was not), and I was pleasantly surprised. Initially I was struck with how none of the characters were particularly likeable, but not long after I realized that that’s how life actually is; most people, in their day-to-day lives, wouldn’t necessarily make for the most “likeable” movie characters. Johansson’s Vicky is pretentious and flighty and more than a bit annoying, and I’ve known a few girls almost exactly like that. With no real artistic talent of her own (but with an intense desire to be “artistic”), her goal seems to be to set herself up as the muse for an actual artist, which she does with Bardem’s Juan Antonio for a little while. The tension really enters their relationship when Cruz’s Maria Elena comes whirling back into his life after some kind of suicide attempt, at which point Vicky learns, to her dismay, that she will always be Juan Antonio’s muse, even if they’re apart (it doesn’t help Vicky’s insecurities that Maria Elena is quite an artist herself, and that real artistic collaboration is just one more thing she can never give him).

The movie is still quite stylized in many ways, most obviously in terms of its dialogue. It’s a Woody Allen film, after all, so the characters are all incredibly witty and urbane (there’s that word again), and the script is filled with clever lines. And given Allen’s stature in the movie industry, he pretty much gets his pick of actors, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona is no different. Penelope Cruz just won an Oscar for her work as Maria Elena, and I can’t disagree with that choice. Cruz is an actress who’s done nothing but annoy me in everything I’ve seen her in until this film (I always heard she was miles better in her native Spanish, and that’s apparently true), but she’s excellent here. Bardem, the other Oscar-winner in the cast, is great as well, giving Juan Antonio a confidence and smoothness that doesn’t come off as sleazy (which it very easily could have), and in his scenes with Cruz they two actors manage to convey a surprising amount of background information about their long and complicated relationship with just a few expressions or exchanges. Both Bardem and Cruz bring their A-game.

Johansson and Hall are the biggest parts of the cast, however, and they do pretty well. As easy as she is on the eyes, I think Johansson is an awful actress (Allen, apparently, begs to differ, as Vicky Cristina Barcelona marks his third collaboration with her in the past five years), but she didn’t make me cringe in this movie, which is the closest thing I can muster to praise for her work. Hall, whom I’ve never seen before, is actually very good, and her character has the biggest arc of anyone in the movie. Between Allen’s script and Hall’s acting, Cristina rises above the clichéd “good girl” the role probably would have become in just about any other version of this story.

The film is also gorgeously shot, with cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe bathing just about every frame in a lush, golden glow that really makes you feel like you’re there spending a lazy summer in Spain with the characters; it’s a great movie for a cold winter night. Overall I was quite impressed with Vicky Cristina Barcelona (particularly as it’s not really my cup of tea, genre-wise), and if you’re a fan of Woody Allen or sharply-written romantic farces, this movie’s for you.



The Vicky Cristina Barcelona DVD has literally nothing on it. Not even a trailer.

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