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  Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Starring: Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem

Directed by: Woody Allen

Produced by: Woody Allen, Jaume Roures, Letty Aronson, Stephen Tenenbaum, Gareth Wiley

Written by: Woody Allen
Distributor: The Weinstein Company


     There seems to be a common consensus held in the critical community that Woody Allen’s best work is behind him, that his cinematic outings in the 2000s (with the exception of Match Point) have been total disasters. I’ve never bought into this notion, figuring it to be a mindless exercise in comparison. Yes, Allen’s recent films may not be able to measure up to Annie Hall’s brand of observant romantic-comedy or Take the Money and Run’s goofy hilarity, but they all represent decent entertainments. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Hollywood Ending were minor but amusing explorations of typical Allen neuroses, Anything Else was a downright hysterical commentary on modern relationships, Melinda and Melinda was a clever turn for the artsy, Scoop was a pleasantly written farce, and Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream were both solid thrillers drenched in moral-dilemma. Why do critics believe the guy no longer has a masterpiece (or at least a few more good movies) left in him?

     If Vicky Cristina Barcelona doesn’t turn the negative vibe towards Allen’s new work around, then nothing will. While I’m not sure that the movie is my favorite of his efforts in the new millennium, it represents the most polished, tonally-balanced Allen picture since 1997’s acclaimed Deconstructing Harry. While not a full-fledged riot, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is by turns erotically titillating and wickedly funny, a wholly satisfying picture that captures Allen’s distinguished views on carefree romance and erratic-persona-driven humor.

     The film’s structure is simple, but effective. As explained in the opening scenes by the accessibly poetic words of a sincere narrator (Christopher Evan Welch), the titular two characters embody both of the aforementioned tonal styles. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is an uptight graduate student whose particular area of interest is Catalan artwork; Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is a carefree, sexually-charged young artist. As Vicky Cristina Barcelona takes off, both Americans have traveled to Barcelona, Spain to stay for the summer with Vicky’s relatives (Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn). Vicky is there to continue study on her Master’s Thesis—sparing some time to swoon over Spanish guitar licks, mind you—and the more-liberated Cristina is more or less along for the ride.

     The young women’s focus quickly shifts from exclusively art, however, when they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), an elusive Spanish painter who gained communal-fame when his ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) tried to kill him. Juan Antonio frankly introduces himself to the girls at a restaurant after Cristina eyes him at an art-show hours earlier, inviting them on a private-plan (he will pilot – of course) to Oviedo and propositioning them for group-sex. The engaged-to-be-married Vicky is repulsed but sort of compulsively allured by the tall, dark, and handsome man, whereas Cristina—always the opposite of her friend—is downright taken by him. After much frenzied conversation, the three end up on their way to Oviedo for a weekend that gives way to the development of not one but two complicated love-relationships. And when they return to Barcelona, things only get wilder: Cristina moves in with Juan Antonio only to witness the unstable Maria Elena follow in her footsteps. Meanwhile, Vicky faces her own personal issues related to her fiancé back home (Chris Messina).

     As a filmmaker, Allen has always had an indomitable faith in simplicity in order to focus his energy on shaping his characters’ personalities. Rarely, however, are they as well-defined as those in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. If there is a quality that separates this film from Allen’s other recent efforts, which are defendable for different reasons, it’s the way that he writes his characters. Whereas Anything Else and Hollywood Ending, for example, focused mostly on punch-lines for their humor, Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels much more organic in that the comedy is naturally derived from the players involved. In order to skip any bulky setup, Allen uses his narrator to flesh out basic palettes for his central characters and then interject occasionally in regards to their inner-thoughts. Without much plot to deal with, he allows himself to delve into the personalities and lets his actors sink their teeth into the material, fleshing their characters out in ways that prove suitably sexy and funny.

     Speaking of the actors – they’re fabulous. In what is debatably the lead role in the film, Rebecca Hall is radiant, proving herself a perfect fit for the Allen mold. As neurotic and off-putting as Vicky sometimes is, Hall also realizes the woman’s underpinning sexuality, as evidenced by her titillating short relationship with Juan Antonio. Hall has been memorable in past supporting roles in British productions—Starter for 10 and The Prestige being the most notable—but she here cements the fact that she has a bright future ahead of her in Hollywood. Alongside her (nearly) every step of the way, Scarlett Johansson is dependably sultry as the free-spirited Cristina. Like Hall, Johansson is able to employ both her comedic chops and stunning looks to craft an involving character. Javier Bardem makes a perfect match for the two, furthering his ability to transform into distinguishable characters (even if Juan Antonio isn’t exactly Anton Chigurh on the transformability-scale). Compared to her three costars, Penelope Cruz fades into the background, still riotous as the psycho-let-loose Maria Elena but not as engaging, perhaps because she isn’t afforded as attractive a character.

     If there’s one sizable qualm to be had with Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it’s that the movie is too inconsequential a work to amount to anything. Nonetheless, there’s a shortage of well-constructed pictures that feature good performances, smart writing, and engaging settings in today’s Hollywood and, at the very least, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is one more decent effort to fill the void. In the cinematic dumping-ground that is August, one won’t do much better than this film when purchasing an admission-ticket at the local multiplex.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 8.14.2008

Screened on: 8.6.2008 at the Clarity Screening Room in Beverly Hills, CA.


Vicky Cristina Barcelona is rated PG-13 and runs 97 minutes.

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