Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008): Woody Allen’s Comedy, Starring Penelope Cruz in Oscar Winning Performance

Cannes Film Festival 2008 (Out of Competition)–After many years of eagerly waiting, Woody Allen has finally made a good, entertaining, and for a change commercial, picture, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” a romantic comedy set in one of Europe’s most romantic and special cities.
With the notable exception of “Match Point, a decent dramatic thriller, Allen has not made a really good film that bears his personal signature since “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994), 14 years ago! And coming right after his London-set mediocre flicks, such as “Scoop,” new achievement is all the more impressive–a return to form.

His newc comedy, essentially a breezy divertissement, should not be placed in the league of his more substantial masterworks, “Manhattan” or “Hannah and Her Sisters,” but in terms of theme, approach, style, and tone, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (VCB from now, with apologies for abbreviating) represents a love poem to the Spanish city in the same way that his 1970s works (including “Annie Hall”) were for New York City’s Manhattan.


VBC received its world premiere out of competition at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, and the Weinstein Company will release the romantic comedy later this summer. With the right handling and positioning, VCB could become a hot date movie, bringing more audiences to the theater than to any of Allen’s recent pictures.


Set against the luscious sensuality of Barcelona, VCB is Allen’s funny, bright, and witty meditation on love, in all its romantic and sexual exhilarations and heartache, in all its intriguingly elusive and inherently mysterious nature. In a year–particularly this summer–in which most of the big actioner, comic-strip adventures, and sequels are special-effects driven and decidedly male-oriented, it’s refreshing to see a smaller, more intimate work that revolves around women. Though not labeled a woman’s director in the way that George Cukor was, Allen has done more for women than most of his cohorts.


In the new picture, there are no less than four gorgeous, intelligent and beguiling women, including a new discovery, Rebecca Hall who, with her patrician looks, height, elegance and even delivery recalls the young Diane Keaton in Allen’s work of the 1970s and early 1980s. The other three are Scarlett Johansson, Allen’s muse and frequent star over the past decade, Penelope Cruz, who give the film’s outstanding performance and should be considered seriously for the Supporting Actress Oscar (and other kudos) at year’s end, and the always reliable Patricia Clarkson, as the mature and wise married femme.


That said, at the risk of belittling or trivializing the film, VCB belongs to the subgenres of “Girls Just Want to Have Some Fun” and “American Women Abroad,” types of films that go back to the 1950s with such schmaltzy classics as “Three Coins in the Fountain,” set in Rome, or the more serious and solid, David Lean’s “Summertime,” set in Venice and starring Katharine Hepburn as an American spinster-teacher who falls for a local (married) man.


With the exception of Clarkson, in Allen’s picture the femme are in their twenties (Hall and Johansson) or thirties (Penelope Cruz), young enough to engage in erotic explorations and to experiment with different forms of romance before they get married and settle down.


Allen’s serio-comic tale revolves around two young American women and their amorous escapades in Barcelona, one of the world’s romantic cities. A male voice-over narration places the protags in context and continues to describe and comment on their mischievous actions and inner thoughts throughout the film, landing it the tone of a fable.


Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are best friends, who share many things in common-except their radically different attitudes towards love. Vicky is sensible and engaged to a respectable young man, Doug (Chris Mesina), a narrow-minded yuppie who’s rational and logical and mostly talks about investments and the right apartments for them to live. Well-groomed, wearing Polo and Lacoste shirts and khaki pants, and endlessly on his cell immediately places Doug in the snobbish upper-middle class.


In contrast Cristina is sexually and emotionally uninhibited. However, insecure, she perpetually searching for a passion that will sweep her off her feet. She knows more what she doesn’t want than what she wants.


When Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and Mark (Kevin Dunn), Vicky’s distant relatives, offer to host them for a summer in Barcelona, the two girls eagerly accept: Vicky wants to spend her last months as a single woman doing research for her M.A thesis on Catalan culture, and Cristina is looking for a change of pace to flee the damaging wreckage of her last breakup.


One night at an art gallery, Cristina instantly locks eyes on the most intense and provocative man in the room, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a handsome painter, wearing a red shirt. Cristina becomes more intrigued when Judy whispers that Antonio had such an explosive relationship with his ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) that one of them tried to kill the other.


Fate interferes: Later that night, when Vicky and Cristina are having dinner, Antonio approaches their table with a brazen proposition: fly with him for a weekend trip to the provincial town of Oviedo, where he suggests they explore the cultural wonders, drink fine wine, and make love together. Vicky finds his proposal obnoxious and preposterous, but Cristina is enchanted by his directness and charisma, and persuades Vicky to accompany her, claiming, “You’ve got to admire his non-bullshit approach.”


During a day of sightseeing and fine dining in Oviedo, Juan Antonio speaks in reverential terms about the magnificent Maria Elena, the great love of his life. Despite their profound connection, their passions ran too high for them to be together. Once, things got so cataclysmic that Maria Elena stabbed him in a mad fit of jealousy.


That night, Juan Antonio invites the girls to his rooman offer Vicky adamantly refuses and Cristina willingly consents to. But just as Cristina and Juan Antonio are about to fall into bed, Cristina becomes ill, and it’s Vicky who spends the remainder of the weekend alone with him. Juan Antonio takes Vicky to meet his father and opens his heart about his childhood hopes and his turbulent relationship with Maria Elena. Perceiving a deeper side to him, Vicky gradually sheds her misgivings, and during the romantic night before they leave Oviedo, Vicky and Juan Antonio make love.


After returning to Barcelona, Vicky can’t stop thinking about Juan Antonio. Meanwhile he directs his romantic attentions to the available and willing Cristina, who soon moves in with him. When Vicky expresses her disappointment, he points out that as she’s engaged, it would cause needless pain for everyone if they continued.


Indeed, Vicky’s fiance Doug (Chris Messina) arrives in Barcelona early, and the two are soon married. As Cristina and Juan Antonio settle into a dreamy life together, one night he is awakened by an alarming phone call–Juan Antonio’ss ex-wife Maria Elena is at the hospital after a suicide attempt. Returning home with the dazzlingly beautiful and tempestuous Maria Elena, Juan Antonio explains to a stunned Cristina that his she will have to stay with them for a few months, as she has nowhere else to go.


Jealous and suspicious, and subject to wild mood swings, Maria Elena misses no opportunity to bicker with Juan Antonio and put Cristina down. In time, she becomes more relaxed and settles into a warmer relationship with Juan Antonio and even mentors Cristinas pursuit of photography. Maria Elena tells Cristina that she is the missing ingredient that allows her to live happily with Juan Antonio. In a transition that is tranquil and natural, the three of them become lovers.


By chance at a party sometime later, Vicky sees Judy kissing Marks business partner. After Judy tells Vicky that she hasnt been in love with Mark for years, Vicky reveals her feelings for Juan Antonio. Determined to rescue Vicky from her own fate, Judy tries to bring Vicky and Juan Antonio together. Meanwhile, Cristina, true to her nature, starts to get restless. As the summer draws to a close, Vicky and Cristina learn some hard lessons about love and about themselvesat least for a while.


Allen’s writing relies on cultural and natural stereotypes, particularly in the case of his Spaniard thesps. Though both Bardem (in a radical change of pace from his Oscar-winning turn in “No Country for Old Men”) demonstrates a wider range than given credit for, convincingly play a suave Don Juan, his character is very much in the mode of Hollywood’s French-Latino lovers, dating back to Gallic Charles Boyer and Louis Jordan and Italian Rosanno Brazzi and Marcello Mastroianni.


Similarly, the enchanting Penelope Cruz, who looks terrifically sexy (even when she is angry), plays a role that draws on the tradition of sexy and strong Italian movie stars, such as Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren (but not Gina Lollobrigida!), as she did in her Oscar-nominated turn in Almodovar’s “Volver.”


Moving rapidly, and unlike “Sex and the City” occupying the proper duration (95 breezy minutes), “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is not a particularly deep film. Its observations about love and sex, while ringing true, lack freshness and have been stated before, by Allen himself, among other auteurs. But the tone is almost always right and the women, even the hysterical and neurotic ones, are so charming that you watch the film with good faith and a big smile, from the beginning all the way to the saga’s logical conclusion. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay this romantic comedy is to say that Spaniard auteur Pedro Alomodvar, who resides in Madrid but adores Barcelona, would approve of Allen’s work.


Cast


Juan Antonio – Javier Bardem Judy Nash – Patricia Clarkson Maria Elena – Penelope Cruz Mark Nash – Kevin Dunn Vicky – Rebecca Hall Cristina – Scarlett Johansson Doug – Chris Messina


Credits


A Weinstein Company (in U.S.), Warner Bros. Intl. (international) release of a Mediapro & Gravier production in association with Antena 3 Films & Antena 3 TV, a Dumaine production. Produced by Letty Aronson, Gareth Wiley, Stephen Tenenbaum. Executive producers: Jaume Roures. Co-producer: Helen Robin. Co-executive producers: Jack Rollins, Charles H. Joffe, Javier Mendez. Directed, written by Woody Allen. Camera: Javier Aguirresarobe. Editor: Alisa Lepselter. Production designer: Alain Bainee. Art director: Inigo Navarro. Set decorators: Sylvia Steinbrecht, Sol Caramilloni. Costume designer: Sonia Grande. Sound: Peter Glossop; supervising sound editor, Robert Hein; re-recording mixer, Lee Dichter. Casting: Juliet Taylor, Patricia DiCerto.


Running time: 95 Minutes (English, Spanish dialogue)