For better or worse, everybody has an opinion about a Woody Allen movie. It stands to reason; the man is an icon. He has found a niche capitalizing on his brand of humor. His films work because they make audiences find a place to laugh in the dark realms between fear and desire. His sensibilities about the way we live and love are heightened by his refusal to compromise his vision of real life, and his screenplays are punctuated with the inappropriate, the cathartic and the wonderful. He could make a picture with a zillion dollar budget, but it could never be classified as a true Woody Allen film. Allen makes small films about big ideas.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is no exception. The story is about two friends spending a summer in Spain. We are introduced to Vicky, played by Rebecca Hall (The Prestige), and her best friend Cristina, played by Scarlet Johansson (The Black Dahlia), through voice-overs provided by Christopher Evan Welch (Synecdoche, New York). The two friends are as diametric as possible. Vicky’s outlook on love is very traditional and she has come to Barcelona to finish her thesis. Cristina’s style of love is more open, and the spontaneous actress is in Spain to recharge her creative batteries. The two are staying with Vicky’s relatives, married couple Judy and Mark, played by Patricia Clarkson (The Untouchables) and Kevin Dunn (Transformers).
Vicky and Cristina meet a local artist named Juan Antonio, played by Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men). Cristina notices him right away, and learns of his abusive marriage and messy, public divorce. Later that night, he approaches the women in a restaurant and invites them for a weekend visit to his hometown for sights, wine and sex. Repulsed at the thought, Vicky lambastes him, but Cristina is genuinely intrigued at the notion. Vicky ultimately capitulates, only to chaperone her friend, and Juan Antonio flies the ladies to their destination.
Juan Antonio plays the perfect gentleman while hosting Vicky and Cristina. They take in the sights and learn about the art and architecture of the city. After a late dinner, Cristina winds up in his room, but before they can make love she becomes sick. Vicki and Juan Antonio are forced to spend the remainder of the weekend without her. Vicki begins to thaw when she and Juan Antonio visit his poet father. Later, the pair dines together. Disarmed, drunk, and moved by the Spanish music of the evening, she and Juan Antonio make love. Vicki is shaken by the episode, and tries to immerse herself in her studies when they return to Barcelona. She does not tell Cristina about what happened. Cristina distracts herself by taking photos. Vicki’s fiancé Doug, played by Chris Messina (Rounders), announces his intentions to wed her in Barcelona, then later in the States for their friends and family. Vicki reluctantly agrees.
Juan Antonio phones Cristina after a few days, and the two begin a romantic relationship. Everything is going well until a phone call in the middle of the night reveals that Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, María Elena, played by Penélope Cruz (Blow), has tried to commit suicide. Juan Antonio invites her to stay in the guest bedroom. María Elena is distraught, emotional, and skeptical of Cristina.
Past this point, the outcome of the story is too important and substantial to disclose in this review. Viewers can expect the unconventional and imaginative. Woody Allen and his ever growing worldview are not diluted by globalism. Instead, like the title suggests, Barcelona becomes a pivotal character in this romantic comedy. Drawing upon European sensibilities, Allen makes his audience question their preconceived ideas about the nature and shape of love, and the story could not have happened in any other setting. The film is a work of art that uses art as a metaphor for the complexities of contemporary romance. Love is laborious, and the work of a lover is open to interpretation, and not necessarily reciprocation.
With this film, Allen has raised his own bar. These characters are fully realized, and the acting is superb. Every predilection, anxiety, and nuance is genuine, and no part of the story is disingenuous. Penélope Cruz shows why she earned an Oscar for her role, and makes me forget anything she may have done in Vanilla Sky. Javier Bardem is convincing as the tortured but sensitive artist, and his every interaction with his female costars plays beyond chemistry and becomes a new, divine science that is nothing short of incendiary. Although there is a slight slant against most of the American notions of romance, it is not geared toward any of the American actors, who instead are a wonderful source of conflict and compromise. The true star of the show is the gorgeous scenery, and every shot features the beauty of Spain.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not for everyone, and as such, it becomes a powerful litmus test. Romcom purists will be forced to realign their compasses since this movie follows its own roadmap. There is nothing predictable about the story, and the ending approaches like a song you never want to stop playing. This film flirts with conventionality long enough to establish expectations, then elate one’s senses with the sublime until those expectations dissipate in the atmosphere. Audiences of either gender who appreciate truly great filmmaking will not be disappointed.
Javier Bardem – Juan Antonio Gonzalo
Rebecca Hall – Vicky
Penélope Cruz – María Elena
Scarlett Johansson – Cristina
Chris Messina – Doug
Patricia Clarkson – Judy Nash
Kevin Dunn – Mark Nash
DVD Release 27 January 2009
The Weinstein Company