14 June 2009

Movie Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona


Vicky Cristina Barcelona
2008, 96mins, PG-13
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Cast includes: Javier Bardem, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz, Christopher Evan Welch (narration)
Release Date: 15th August 2008

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” has accumulated a fair degree of praise and accolades since release nearly a year ago in August 2008, critics consistently praising the movie as a return to form for auteur Woody Allen and eventually allowing Penelope Cruz to go forward and nab the Oscar gold for her supporting role. I’ll give Cruz her due and accept that she gives a fire cracker of a performance but nothing else really ignites in this tawdry and hard to digest examination of the complexities of love. It’s a worthy project in a few respects but ultimately bores and tires the audience, a weakness made further shocking by the fact that the whole affair runs at a linear 96 minutes.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are two young American girls set to spend a summer in Barcelona together, Vicky to complete her master studies on Catalan culture and Cristina to widen her horizons and indulge in the foreign atmosphere. It’s made abundantly clear from the start that both woman have vastly different ambitions in their love life, soon to be wed Vicky wants commitment and solidity whilst Cristina is a looking for raw and passionate intensity with little tolerance for the norm. One night at a restaurant they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) a charismatic artist interested in taking the girl’s way for the weekend, to indulge in culture, wine and sex. Cristina likes the concept but Vicky is more uncertain yet eventually both are coerced into the trip. Cristina falls ill on arrival leaving Vicky and Juan to get to know each other a little better and an unlikely passion strikes. However when the trio return to Barcelona things get awkward, Juan and Cristina move in together, Vicky’s fiancĂ©e pays a visit and more explosively Juan’s suicidal and immensely animated ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) moves back into his life. As the film progresses a fully formed circle of passion and love forms, but with nothing certain between the various and wildly different personalities.

The performances range from solid to wiz popping excellence, Cruz is certainly at her fiery best as the intense and unpredictable ex-wife whilst Javier Bardem continues to impress and display range as the frank, charming but ultimately good natured seducer of the title characters. These two probably represent the very finest elements the picture has to offer, there is simply more energy and screen presence coming of Bradem and Cruz than anyone else featured and for that reason they equate to the production’s most captivating content. Hall and Johansson are adequate, the latter now providing her third appearance in a Woody Allen film. I have no doubt that both Johansson and Hall are perfectly capable actresses and at times they do convey some admirably deep emotional notes in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” but they can’t measure up to the key players around them. Ultimately whilst no cast member disappoints the fact the leading ladies can’t keep pace with Cruz and Bardem works against the project, this is Vicky and Cristina’s story but it’s the other various subplots which really induce any sense of viewing pleasure.

The voice over narration that is present for the whole runtime and is intended to offer further resonance to Vicky and Cristina’s thoughts is a bad move, it’s been touted that narration can kill a picture and in many ways it’s this that marks the productions most infuriating flaw. The story I itself is only occasionally interesting but the voice over seems to be Allen’s lazy way of validating his patchy screenplay, unable to mine emotional resonance or interesting perspectives from the dialogue and plot developments alone, he requires an unsubtle narration to plug in the considerable gaps. This is the sign of a filmmaker behind the current curve and who desperately requires stale tricks to allow his film any sense of resonance. To say he fails at gaining it even with the stilted narration would be unfortunately accurate.

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” has flashes of quirky observation but mostly its findings on love are repetitive and moldy. Being a Woody Allen film it’s determined to work through the eyes of artsy intellectuals and conflicted geniuses but despite the apparent uniqueness of the productions motley crew, the findings on love aren’t exactly illuminated with refreshing consequences. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” has its moments of intrigue and emotional treasure but they’re far outweighed by obvious analysis of the human condition. This packed inside an aimless and utterly loopy excuse for a summer dalliance makes for less than compelling viewing.

There is precious little funny about this picture but that’s not really where Allen wants to take it, however the fact it falls flat in its attempts whisk up new interpretations concerning sexual and loving relationships is less forgivable. The performances are all pretty good but the relationships formed through Allen’s script feel undercooked (except for Bardem and Cruz) whilst the narrative itself is dank and overly dependent on a sledgehammer narration. I was really hoping for something striking and attractive from “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” but instead have been offered a far from insightful drama that borders dangerously close to mediocrity. It might make you want to visit Spain with its lavish shots of the country but those looking for a new perspective on love aren’t likely to find it there on the basis of this half hearted drama.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009


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