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Vicky Cristina Barcelona (review)

Woodyn’t You Know It

My relationship with Woody Allen, which has been love/hate of late — emphasis on the hate — is taking an uptick. His last few films — Scoop, Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream — couldn’t hold a light to, say, Manhattan, but at least they didn’t make me want to claw my eyes out like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending, from the early 2000s, did. I like Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Not a lot, and I wish I could like it more, but my eyes and sanity remain intact, so that’s a point in its favor.
I think I’d like VCB a lot more if Allen — who, as always, serves as writer and director — had eschewed the precious-cutesy narration he saddles his story with. The narrator (Christopher Evan Welch: The Good Shepherd, The Interpreter) is not a character, just a disembodied voice telling us things we can either plainly see for ourselves right at the moment he’s speaking, or would have figured out in short order and didn’t particularly need to know in advance anyway. Such as that these two American college friends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall: The Prestige, Wide Sargasso Sea) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson: The Other Boleyn Girl, The Black Dahlia), have very different ideas about love. They’ve just arrived in Barcelona, where they will be spending the summer while Vicky studies for her masters in Catalan culture and Cristina tries to figure out just what the hell she’s gonna do with her life.

You can’t even call the narrator “godlike” or “omniscient” or anything like that, because he seems not to know anything we don’t: instead, it appears he’s explaining the nuances of Allen’s umpteenth thesis on how absolutely everyone is completely screwed up when it comes to romance and sex and relationships. But there aren’t really any nuances, in fact, that need explaining. Vicky is either boring and cowardly or responsible and mature, depending on your perspective, and Cristina is either adventurous and passionate or wild and immature… which we see the moment they meet painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem: Love in the Time of Cholera, No Country for Old Men), who propositions both of them in the most outrageous way, prompting outrageously different responses from each of them, and setting a plot of musical lovers in motion.

Oh, and then Juan Antonio’s crazy ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz: Volver, Bandidas), turns up and complicates things even further. Cruz is a firecracker — in fact, everyone burns up the screen with their fiery performances — but I found it a bit disturbing that Allen plays Maria Elena for laughs. She is clearly actually mentally ill, not just neurotic in a normal way like Allen’s characters always are, and something about that seems wrong, particularly in a movie that believes itself to be grounded in reality. We can’t see Maria Elena as cartoonish, and only in a cartoon world would her pain be funny.

Mostly what you need to know about VCB is this: Cristina is Woody. Vicky is Mia. They have the same conversations we’ve heard a million times before in Allen’s movies. And you don’t have to disagree with Allen’s philosophy and attitudes about love to find them tedious here: they’ve become platitudes. “I love him but I’m not in love with him,” one character says here. *yawn* And the other targets that Allen pokes tentative sticks at — like American smallmindedness and consumerism — seem like afterthoughts, they’re treated with such mildness.

You know what the problem is? Allen has gotten lazy. He’s tired of himself, and so are we.


Watch Vicky Cristina Barcelona online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

MPAA: rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexuality, and smoking

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
  • http://www.clayj.com Clayj

    What the hell was that? Did “TonyMUSA” just advertise his movie?

  • MaryAnn

    Yes, and I deleted it.

  • http://www.clayj.com Clayj

    His post reminded me very much of the following bit from The Critic:

    Potential Ebert Replacement: Tim Allen gives that same likeable performance we’ve always loved. Once again proving Disney pictures have the magical touch that may not win awards, but keep America smiling. How’s that?

    Gene Siskel: You’re Satan, aren’t you?

    Potential Ebert Replacement: [transforms into Satan] You’ve won another round, Siskel. But we shall meet again!

    Anyway, back on topic: I’ve never been a big fan of Woody Allen’s work, although some of his earlier movies (Sleeper, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex) had some really good bits. I think the problems are that Woody Allen has been believing too much in his press and that there are far too many actors and actresses who will jump at any “it-would-obviously-be-mediocre-if-anyone-but-Woody-Allen-were-directing-it” project simply so they can say they’ve worked with him. (I mean, Scarlett Johansson? Really?) Like George Lucas, he seems to be coasting on his reputation and not being edgy anymore.

    A few people regard his work as manna from heaven, but for everyone else watching his recent work just results in a sort of “ehh” feeling.

  • John

    This is probably the worse review i have ever read of any movie. You really need to take care of your composition. Did you even read what you wrote man this really sucks.

  • Rykker

    This is probably the worse review i have ever read of any movie. You really need to take care of your composition. Did you even read what you wrote man this really sucks.

    He who lives in a glass house should not throw stones.

  • Jan Willem

    I think I will give this one a pass. The last Woody Allen movie I watched in a cinema was Match Point, which provided a bland, generic, American tourist’s view of its British characters and location – on top of being over-long, boring and predictable. It didn’t go down too well in Britain, from what I gather. I wonder how Spanish audiences will be responding to this one.

  • MaryAnn

    This is probably the worse review i have ever read of any movie. You really need to take care of your composition. Did you even read what you wrote man this really sucks.

    If you would care to explain, John, in what way this review sucks, and what makes it the worst review ever, I’m sure I could use the lessons in composition. Please, enlighten a poor, unskilled writer…

  • Hutch

    I could explain. For one, at one point you spell the character Vicky’s name incorrectly, even though it is in the title. Also, you claim to understand the “perspectives” of your audience. No critic, as far as I am aware, can make the assumption that they have the final word on interpreting a character’s actions, no matter how shallow you may think they are. Finally, I am very confused by your placement of the two female characters into the Mia-Woody dynamic. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen the film yet, but given that this is a review, I suppose that I am the target audience. You leave this without explanation though, so I wonder whether I supposed to be left with this confusion.

  • John

    There seems to be no understanding of the whole structure of Woody Allen’s previous work. On top of that you have mentioned Javier Bardem with his worst film that is Love At the Time of Cholera. The man is a seminal actor who did great work Pedro which I m pretty sure you are not aware of. Even to say that he was connected to that movie is an outrage to his credibility. Please do watch movies of Julian Schnabel if you really want to see this high strung performer.

  • MaryAnn

    at one point you spell the character Vicky’s name incorrectly, even though it is in the title.

    Seriously? A typo constitutes “the worst review ever”? Wow.

    No critic, as far as I am aware, can make the assumption that they have the final word on interpreting a character’s actions

    Did I claim to have the final word on anything?

    I am very confused by your placement of the two female characters into the Mia-Woody dynamic.

    Really? You cannot imagine other characters falling into their dynamic? Try it! It’s fun.

    you have mentioned Javier Bardem with his worst film that is Love At the Time of Cholera.

    It’s a link to another film of his that I’ve reviewed, not a commentary on anything at all.

    Even to say that he was connected to that movie is an outrage to his credibility.

    What? It’s an insult to state an undisputed fact about an actor? I don’t think the movie is as bad as all that, but if you do, perhaps your beef is with Bardem himself, for having chosen such a role.

    Boy, if *these* are the things that make up the worst review ever written, I can’t imagine how you can possibly endure to read *any* film critic.

  • MaryAnn

    There seems to be no understanding of the whole structure of Woody Allen’s previous work.

    In what way?

  • MaryAnn

    I fixed that typo, by the way. Now it’s the best review ever!

  • Jack

    Your Hot

  • amanohyo

    My hot what? Please try to finish your sentence, even if you’re not quite sure what to write next.

  • Jack

    You just want to hear thats all. You know it.

  • amanohyo

    Well, those are sentences, but I still don’t understand. Who is “You,” and are they unhappily deaf or do they desire to hear the words “that’s all” spoken, perhaps signifying the end of something?

    With all due respect, you’re a real credit to your race.

  • MaryAnn

    It’s true: I just want to hear. I lost my hearing in a tragic accident debating an audience over my final word on their interpretation of a Javier Bardem movie, and it’s been a quiet hell ever since.

  • http://themovie-fanatic.com Jed

    I’ve been reading your reviews for quite a while, and I agree with most of them. I agree with this one too and I simply can’t understand the ‘anomosity’ coming from some of the posters here.

    I also blog about movies and I’m often conscious about my grammar, and when I saw your post about that website (real suave, whatever…) that gets featured @IMDb, I became more conscious. I’m lucky to have someone edit my work, and now it seems some posters have been commenting about yours! I find that quite unfair! For someone like me who’ve enjoyed reading your blog, I think you ought to know that there are also those who find your reviews to be quite terrific. And it’s great that you replied to these comments!

  • tinman

    Previous spelling-nazi comments notwithstanding…I disagree with Mary-Ann’s review of this movie.

    I just came back from watching this film, and while it appears to be light, frothy and somewhat meaningless, it was also in many respects delightfully cynical, very entertaining, well cast, well written and solidly directed. So lets say it has a lot more going for it, in my opinon, than you, Mary Ann with your current anti-woody bias, are willing to let on.

    I think you placed too much emphasis on the fact that Woody Allen is directing this picture, and too little on the quality of the film itself. I think the name Woody Allen puts too much emotional baggage in minds of many people. Which is a bit sad considering the number of quality films he has written and directed.

    Yeah, he tends to stick to one subject -love and relationships among snobby intellectuals and other rich people. Yeah, he has neurotic bent in his dialogue..But his dialogue shallowness serves a purpose: to capture the emptiness of his entitled characters. And the emotional subtlety and range in his writing is masterful. Plus I think with age -his nihilistic attitude towards life (seen both in match point and this movie) is actually somewhat refershing compared to the usual syrupy summer romantic comedies most moviegoers are subjected to. This is not the “my wonderful summer in barcelona” movie it appears to be.

    I also think you missed the point of the narraration -it was meant to be sarcastic and obvious – a sarcastic counterpoint to the foolishness of all the characters. And Allen is targeting everyone here, I think deep down Allen wants his audience to judge these people, not empathise with them. I also don’t really think he likes any of his characters here per se, but what he’s saying is: look at all these wealthy, sexy, attractive and spoiled people, both the materialistic and naive Americans and the self absorbed and crazy spainards, look how the’re all throwing away their chance at happiness even in face of a paradise that is summertime barcelona. That is an accurate reflection of the human condition, that we throw away happiness and take everything for granted. Nobody here is really meant to be admired, more a kind of cynical world- weariness (that was also present in match point by the way) – Also I definitely thought that Ms Cruz gave a grand performance as the wild eyed ex who was both wiser and more foolish then she first appeared.

    Finally any movie Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Scarlett Johansson in a threesome deserves to be seen on the big screen!

  • MaryAnn

    So lets say it has a lot more going for it, in my opinon, than you, Mary Ann with your current anti-woody bias,

    Did I not explain how I’m NOT currently anti-Allen? In fact, I gave *Cassandra’s Dream* a more generous review than it may have deserved.

    I also think you missed the point of the narraration -it was meant to be sarcastic and obvious – a sarcastic counterpoint to the foolishness of all the characters.

    It certainly was obvious, but I didn’t see anything sarcastic about it. Obviously in itself is not automatically sarcastic.

  • tinman

    In a one dimensional movie this kind of narration would be one dimensional and obvious yes, but in this complex, layered plot the ‘obviousness’ of the matter of fact narration had the opposite and comic effect, it was obviously not trying to explain the plot, it reminded me of the narration of another movie I saw for the first time a few months ago – Barry Lyndon -

    In the movie in the overall emotional subtlety of the acting and script -no one character was presented one-dimensionally –eg. Barden was not really a stupid lothario or his ex-wife was more than a crazy ex. So that kind of emotional subtlety contrasted well, I think, with the lack of subtlety in the narrartion… It added a comic effect -which although, I could be wrong, was I think was intentional on the directors part

    Now, I haven’t seen cassandra’s dream or scoop, so I can’t comment –the last allen flick I saw was ‘match point’ – I really liked match point, but I think this one wasn’t bad either

  • MBI

    I really don’t see how we’re supposed to take the narration at anything but face value. There’s not really much contrast between what’s being said and what we see. The narration builds up a distance between us and the characters (indeed, like Barry Lyndon), but I think the film wants us to be sympathetic to them.

    I don’t like these kinds of Woody Allen movies, the kind which free-float around in search of a point. Always thought Hannah and Her Sisters was overrated too. I mean, you can blast Annie Hall and Manhattan and Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors for various reasons, but I don’t think you have to try hard to find a reason Woody would want to tell these stories. The best thing I can guess is that it’s a story about two women who have this potentially life-changing emotional experience and yet somehow come away having made no progress — even moving backwards, arguably. The ending is too abrupt to wring any real sadness out of this though.

  • Sara

    I agree that the narration was annoying and got in the way. It was a Woody Allen sort of thing–the way it was done, but I think MaryAnn is right. No need for the narration (or the WAY it was narrated.) This movie is a bit sloppy, could have been much better.

    Liked the movie, though, for the most part. I see the Mia/Woody–Vicky/Christina comparison, though. I think MaryAnn is on target about that, too.

    I see what MJ says about Maria Elena (and Allen perhaps using her in a disturbing way) but I saw her not as so seriously ill, definitely not neurotic but more of an hysteric (I saw Maria Elena and Juan as having played this game with many females…one at the time. Vicky and Christina just were suckered into the game. Not saying that Maria was “playing” and not nuts, but Juan was equally so, I thought.)

    At least Christina came home with her photography talent and whenever Vicky got bored with her life she could look at the scar on her hand and know that THAT’S not what she wanted.

  • http://www.myspace.com/pernaris Barb Pernaris

    I went to see it, not because it was a Woody Allen movie, but because of the nostalgia of my home land and the participation of serious Spanish actors.

    I expected a “Summer Lovers (1982)” type flick, which it was with narration, and I had great fun with the back and forth between the English and the Spanish, but cinematic speaking (me being a film producer and director currently working in advertising production) it was surprisingly disappointing – 80% of the film was either soft or completely out of focus.

    I went though the trouble in seeing the flick in 2 different venues, because it was impossible for me to fathom this fact. In both theaters the film had the same projection dysfunction. I actually spoke to one of the managers, to complaint and for my self check sort-of-speak. They checked it for me and offered me a free admission to another movie in this theater, because of my complaint. It’s not the projection, its the print.

    Nothing to brag a bout other then some great situation jokes and out of focus, horrible hand-held continues scenes all shot with very bad framing summer-chic-flick.

    Woody no puede hacer cine en Español. Adios!