VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (Dir. Woody Allen, 2008)
Woody Allen’s 43rd film as director is lush, absorbing, and easily his best film in 10 years.
The 4th in his series of films that abandon his long-time cinematic comfort zone of Manhattan for the splendor of a European escapade, Allen is reunited with his most recent muse Scarlett Johansson but this time with terrific not abysmal results.
After the traditional Allen white on black credits (now with Spanish guitar and not big band jazz accompanying) we join Johansson and best friend Rebecca Hall as they get off a plane in Barcelona - they are the Cristina and Vicky of the title. A narrator (Christopher Evan Welch), a device that evokes memories of the docudrama style of HUSBANDS AND WIVES, tells us about our leading ladies' temperments - Johansson is romantically impulsive while Hall is stable, analytic, and most importantly engaged to be married to a buttoned-down reliable but bland Chris Messina.
While dining one night a smooth Spanish painter (Javier Bardem) approaches them and proposes that they join him for a romantic weekend in Oviedo: “We’ll eat well, we’ll drink wine, we’ll make love.” Hall is immediately cynical and put off by Bardem, having heard troubling gossip about his ex-wife, but Johanssen is giddily enchanted which wins over and we're off and running!
Bardem’s ex-wife, the sultry and simultaneously sulking Penélope Cruz, is trouble indeed; she shows up after getting out of the hospital asking for vodka with daggers in her eyes aimed at Johansson as she storms into their life. Possible Spoiler!: both Hall and Johansson have fallen for Bardem by this point which threatens Hall’s marriage and makes murkier the matters of the heart between all of them. What’s never murky is the photography with gorgeous shots of the temples, landscapes, and luxurious patios of Spain framed by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe.
The dialogue is crisp and wittier than Woody Allen has given us in ages with even subtitled lines (Cruz and Bardem exchange many private asides in Spanish) stinging as the pace never drags with many expertly crafted uncut tracking shots flowing as the characters themselves flow through the beautiful scenery. Great naturalistic acting from all the principals abounds with supporting turns by the always charming Patricia Clarkson and the underused Kevin Dunn filling out the most colorful Woody Allen movie so far.
With Cruz, the Spanish locale, and Aquirresarobe (Director of Photography on TALK TO HER) it could look at first glance that Allen is aping Aldomovar but the pessimism, views on art and forbidden love, as well as the neurotic behaviour (can’t write a review of a Woody Allen film without some use of the word “neurotic”) is all classic Woody Allen.
If you only know Bardem from his role as the cold blooded killer Chighur in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN his role here will be a revelation. Johansson does her best work since LOST IN TRANSLATION fully inhabiting her character with flare and much moxie. All the promotional material for this film (the poster, trailer, etc.) for a large part excludes Rebecca Hall (pictured at the top of this review) which is odd because it’s her tortured entanglement that really gives the film its narrative thrust - I suppose she wasn’t enough of a name for the publicity department.
The tedious repitition of worn-out plot points (Hello, MATCH POINT) and the lackluster lines of his last several films is replaced by a passionate and vital sense of purpose (and a great screenplay) which makes for a extremely satisfying meal of a movie.
The only possible reservation I have is for the inclusion of Welch’s voice-over narration; much of the time I thought the film could do without it but I have to admit it contained some insightful and amusing remarks so I’ll leave it be. VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA is a welcome return to form for the Woodman and with his next project, the already completed WHATEVER WORKS with Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood (also featuring Clarkson) here’s hoping he’s on a roll.