Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Una historia de amor

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Starring Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Opens August 15, 2008

Bardem and Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona
After a trio of films set in London (Match Point, Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream), Woody Allen’s European tour continues with Vicky Cristina Barcelona, his first film shot in Spain: it’s a wispy romantic comedy about two young American women and their month-long stay in the capital of Catalonia.

Levelheaded Vicky (Rebecca Hall), a scholar researching her PhD on Catalan culture is happily engaged to Doug, who’s back in New York. Fun-loving, peculiar, edgy Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) isn’t content with her lot in life, preferring to do things her way, whether her free-love romantic life or her artistic side (she’s just made a 12-minute short film about love).

The plot of Vicky Cristina Barcelona is set in motion when the two women meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a hot-blooded Spanish painter who introduces himself in a restaurant by inviting them to a weekend of sightseeing and lovemaking. Soon, this offbeat ménage a trois–Juan Antonio and Cristina are soon living together, although not before he hooks up almost inadvertently with Vicky–is further complicated by the return of Juan Antonio’s estranged wife, hot-headed and mentally unbalanced Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz).

As a longtime Woody Allen fan, I’ve stuck with him through thick and thin, even though it’s been unusually thin lately: Hollywood Ending and Anything Else were a one-two sucker punch from the Woodman. Still, going to Europe seems to have renewed his creative energy: Match Point was an intriguing thriller, Scoop a warmhearted screwball comedy and Cassandra’s Dream a tragically downbeat drama.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona seems at first a slight, gossamer travelogue, showing a tourist’s view of one of Europe’s most architecturally imposing cities that’s similar to the celebrated scene in Hannah and Her Sisters when Sam Waterston takes Dianne Wiest and Carrie Fisher on a whirlwind tour of Manhattan’s most significant buildings. Here, Vicky and Cristina visit several of Antonio Gaudi’s outstanding modernist works, including his unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Família church, and the futuristic apartment complex, Casa Milà.

Through the accommodating eye of his new cinematographer, Javier Aguirresarobe, Allen’s picture-postcard Barcelona is ravishingly beautiful, as lovely in its very contours as was New York City in both Manhattan and Hannah.

Even though, in the press notes, Allen insists that he uses it as a shortcut so he wouldn’t have to show everything, the overinsistent narration does describe much that we are already watching onscreen. Still, Christopher Evan Welch—a terrific comic actor who’s was in Allen’s play at the Atlantic Theater Company, Writers Block, a few seasons back—narrates with a raised eyebrow, so to speak, preventing tedium and triteness from creeping in.

Oscar winner Javier Bardem is the reigning Spanish sex symbol, although his hulking presence seems antithetical to the supposed physical allure of Juan Antonio. But if the ladies like him, why not?—and the actor does have a game attitude, bouncing freely between acting the tortured artist and the suave lothario. Penelope Cruz’s popularity is likewise mysterious, since she’s a painfully limited actress (that her competent turn in Pedro Almodovar’s Volver brought her acclaim and an Oscar nomination is mind-boggling). Still, in the fantasy wish-fulfillment role of Maria Elena—the clichéd Latina fireball—Cruz’s many bilingual outbursts are the movie’s comic highlights.

Scarlett Johansson, Allen’s latest muse, is also his least: she strikes pouty attitudes rather than creating a real character. Yet, for such a shallow young woman as Cristina, Allen’s gambit works well. So it’s up to Rebecca Hall to walk away with acting honors: as Vicky, she effortlessly straddles the fine line between initially playing a Woody surrogate (she spits out insult one-liners when, to Vicky’s infinite chagrin, Cristina falls for Juan Antonio’s pick-up lines) and later becoming a mealy-mouthed heroine a la Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow (she falls for Juan Antonio, all the while wondering why she’s having second thoughts about marrying decent if dull Doug). Hall’s easy charm was previously seen onstage at BAM, where she played Rosalind in her father Peter Hall’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It in 2005.

Allen’s witty script is his first since 1996’s sinfully underrated Everyone Says I Love You to play lightheartedly with and fleetly dissect the varied vicissitudes of the heart. Since that film was partly set in another glorious European city, Venice, perhaps it’s no coincidence that, despite its obvious shortcomings, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the work of a newly refreshed and energetic Woody Allen.

Now we can look forward to his cinematic return to Manhattan—Whatever Works, starring Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood and Woody himself—scheduled for release next year. I can’t wait.

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