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.

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