Rebecca Hall as Vicky
Scarlett Johansson as Cristina
Javier Bardem as Juan Antonio
Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena
Chris Messina as Doug
Patricia Clarkson as Judy Nash
Kevin Dunn as Mark Nash
Julio Perillán as Charles
Zak Orth as Adam
Christopher Evan Welch as Narrator
Juan Quesada as Guitarist in Barcelona
Manel Barceló as Doctor
Josep Maria Domènech as Julio Josep
Emilio de Benito as Guitarist in Asturias
Directed by Woody Allen
Another intriguing take on affairs of the heart from the master of the artform with some solid performances, most notably from Javier Bardem and Rebecca Hall.
Vicky and Cristina (Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson) are on their summer vacation in Spain when they meet handsome painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who tries seducing them into sleeping with him. Since Vicky is engaged to a business man in New York, she’s not so easily swayed but Cristina’s relationship with the charming seducer gets more confusing when his ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) enters the picture and she finds herself in a dysfunctional ménage a trois with the passionate artists.
A few years ago, Woody Allen began a new phase of his career, leaving New York City behind to discover the rest of the world along with his latest muse/ingénue Scarlett Johansson. While “Match Point” was considered a return to form for the director, it got so far away from what made his early movies so memorable. The follow-up “Scoop” went back to basics with Allen making his first on-camera appearance in some years, but then “Cassandra’s Dream” returned him to “Match Point” territory for better or worse.
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is the third in his series of films showcasing Johansson, and it’s arguably their best work together, firstly because it has a stronger premise at its core, one that doesn’t veer too far away from themes Allen has explored in the past. It’s also his first film made in a non-English speaking country, and he fully explores the beauty of Spain, both in Barcelona and the surrounding countryside. His smartest move though was bringing on board two of Spain’s finest actors, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, to instill added credibility while exploring his inner Almodovar.
Like most Allen films, it starts innocently enough as we meet two very different 20-something women from the States spending a few months in Spain. The more practical Vicky is already engaged to be married but Cristina is a flighty photographer who bounces from one man to the next. They’re both more than mildly intrigued when they spot painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) from across the room, and when he later propositions them to go to the country with him for the weekend, he’s up front about his desire to bed them both. Cristina is more willing than her friend but gets ill before consummating Juan Antonio’s seduction, leaving Vicky to spend time alone with the confident artist; one thing leads to another and suddenly, Vicky is questioning her feelings for her fiancé back home. Once they get back to Barcelona, Cristina and Juan Antonio become a couple, but things get complicated when his suicidal ex-wife Maria Elena (Cruz) moves in with them. Stuck in between the feuding artists, Cristina eventually gives in and they become a threesome, but another series of conjoining love triangles is formed when Vicky’s fiance Doug shows up and insists on getting married early.
To call “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” a romantic comedy might put off those who normally think of light and whimsical relationship fare that follows a predictable route and offers very little actual depth. Having originated the genre early in his career, Allen fills the movie with plenty of the bed-hopping from his early movies, although this is mostly a sexual fantasy from a male point of view. Women might not necessarily buy the actions of the women in the story as being particularly romantic, while the movie lacks the titillation that might keep men interested, but somehow, it still works.
This is mostly because it’s a film that thrives on some of the strongest acting in a Woody Allen movie in a long time. Allen’s shorthand with Johansson produces the actress’ most natural performance out of their three movies together, but it’s Rebecca Hall who is the revelation when given more room to develop a character. As expected, Bardem and Cruz are no-brainers having both played similar characters in the past, Bardem not having any problem turning on the suave and charm and Cruz easily slipping into the role of an unbalanced artist. Much of the humor comes from the situations and the women’s confused feelings about whether to follow their emotions, but there’s an amusing recurring bit about Juan Antonio constantly chiding Maria Elena whenever she starts speaking Spanish in front of Cristina. It’s just really simple real life moments like that which make it funny, more than Allen’s typical one-liners.
Thankfully, Allen has lessened the amount of “dinner table exposition” that has become standard in his past few movies, where people sit around discussing what’s been happening in the lives of the characters, although we still know more about them from these moments than some of their actions at times. The dialogue and interaction feels far more natural because Allen has found a better balance of naturalistic human behavior vs. the flubbed lines and missed takes that seemed too obvious in other recent movies.
Things go a bit off the wall as Allen waits too long to try to move the story forward and make things happen in the last half hour, and that last act suffers the most from Allen’s recent proclivity for squeezing too many plot developments into too little screen time. The story goes off on a tangent as the aunt played by Patricia Clarkson is seen kissing her husband’s business partner, and Vicky decides to confide about her tryst with the painter. It’s a plot device that doesn’t completely make sense, but by that point, it was probably the only way Allen could have resolved the intricate web of relationships created over the course of the movie.
Despite everything that’s thrown at the two women, the movie ends with them both having seemingly learned a valuable life lesson, and yet, neither seems to have gone through that dramatic a change, which is the biggest difference between Allen’s movie and the European films that clearly influenced him.
The Bottom Line:
While the “romance” in the movie is questionable and it’s only as erotic as a PG-13 rating will allow, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is another interesting character study from one of the masters of relationship comedy. If you prefer Allen when he’s leaning more in that direction as opposed to thrillers, it’s also one of his more satisfying recent efforts in quite some time.