Background: Woody Allen has been through the wringer the last few years. Loyal fans and critics have attacked his recent films like a scorned lover, from Match Point (which I loved) to Scoop (which I didn't see) t0 most recently, Cassandra's Dream, which was just lackluster. For the third time in the last four movies, Allen features Scarlett Johansson (The Other Boleyn Girl, The Prestige), but he also adds newcomer Rebecca Hall (also in The Prestige) and Patricia Clarkson (Married Life). The two younger actresses are somewhat dangerously thrown into the mix with emerging Oscar heavyweights Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) and Penelope Cruz (Volver). Filmed entirely on location in Barcelona and Oviedo, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is sure to wildly increase Study Abroad in Spain applications from American women for years to come.
Synopsis : Vicky (Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) are American twenty-somethings spending the summer in Barcelona, Vicky to study Catalan culture, and Cristina to study whatever she happens upon. Vicky is mature, ambitious, and engaged to be married to Doug (Chris Messina), a New York elitist. Cristina is carefree and bohemian; a dreamer who embraces moral relativism. When Juan Antonio (Bardem), a local artist with a widely publicized failed marriage, invites the women for a sightseeing and lovemaking weekend in Oviedo, it's a no-chance for Vicky and a no-brainer for Cristina. They accept, of course, and both begin affairs with Juan Antonio, Vicky's in private and Cristina's in public. What would become a typical forbidden love story becomes quite the opposite when Doug suddenly arrives in Barcelona, followed closely behind by the return of Maria Elena (Cruz), Juan Antonio's ex-wife. Whose fidelity will last as the summer of love comes to an end?
+ The first scene with Bardem at the late dinner: The Proposition. (I actually started laughing out loud, Anton Chigurh appeared in that scene for a second until I saw him as Juan Antonio).
+ The warmth, richness, and texture of the production. Woody Allen's writing + beautiful location + perfect music = gold.
+ Penelope Cruz's fiery passion, especially in the kitchen/washing dishes scene.
+ The narration - a lot. It's always a gamble, but it succeeded for me in the same way as the narration in The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford.
- Scarlett Johansson - increasingly, I find her less and less of an "actress" and more and more of a celebrity playing in movies.
- Doug, the annoying upper-cruster with all the right intentions about love but, sadly, all the wrong ideas about success.
Writing - 10
Acting - 9
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 3
Total: 45/50= 90% = A-
Last Word: What is about Woody Allen's writing that makes me enjoy spending time with the characters in his films, who, were I to meet in real life, I would otherwise most certainly avoid? Part of it is the sheer amount of dialogue we have with these characters. The more you get to know someone, obviously, the better you can empathize with their issues. But the other part of it is Allen's unique talent for adding depth to his characters and including me in conversations that I never actually have but I always imagine are having at the table next to me. He's one of only a handful of screenwriters who can engage the viewer so intimately in, for example, a 10-minute conversation between two characters simply sitting at a table.
In short, he writes honestly, and it translates naturally to sharp, subtle comedy and a surprising amount of real-life relevance. More than once in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I was reminded of last year's tragically underrated 2 Days in Paris. I have to admit, that film was both funnier and more emotionally raw than Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but it wasn't quite as polished and it didn't have that indescribable Allen-esque familiarity that makes his films so warm - nor did it have the absolutely showstopping presence of Penelope Cruz.
Consider the legendary director back to his old form. He's proven that with the right players, the right story, and the right location, he can still deliver the goods. My hopes are high for next year's Whatever Works, which boasts a solid cast in my opinion, and more importantly marks Allen's long-overdue return to Greenwich Village.