Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 14, 2008 3:55 pm 
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Woody Travel Moviemaking

In this new Woody Allen picture set in Spain, two young women (Scarlett Johansson as Cristina; Rebecca Hall as Vicky) summering in the city of the title, succumb to the charms of an impossibly sexy Spanish artist named José Antonio (Javier Bardem). The brilliant Bardem, who was the creepiest killer ever for the Coen brothers last year, turns in an equally polished and much more palatable performance as a seducer. If his character doesn't always convince, that's not Bardem's fault.

Things were already complicated but they get a lot livelier when José Antonio’s fiery ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), herself highly artistic, unexpectedly comes on the scene, recovering from a suicide attempt. It’s like Henry James and Eric Rohmer on hormones with a dab of explicit sex and a spoonful of Almodovar added for flavor. The result is very colorful and lively. Rebecca Hall, a relative newcomer, brings real conviction to the role of Vicky, who has principles. She doesn’t want to accept Jose Antonio’s bold proposal—he walks up at a restaurant and invites the two Americans to weekend with him in another town. Cristina is all for it. She’s out for fun. Scarlett Johansson has more of a slick bottle-blonde look this time to signify that she’s a bit sluttish.

The movie’s generically-created title--Vicky Cristina Barcelona—gives away a certain routineness. It’s no secret that Woody Allen cranks out movies year after year whether inspiration strikes or not and this one lacks the excitement of Match Point. That movie--Allen's best in recent years--had a real edge because somehow its blend of crime and social ambition felt real. This time Woody seems to be pushing figures around on a chess board—though that’s cleverly concealed by the lush settings and colorful actors.

What happened was that Mr. Allen got an offer from Spain, and so he moved on from London to make another movie. Again he uses Johansson as--not too much of a stretch--a self-absorbed young adventuress longing to be some sort of artist. Her pal Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is seemingly much more stable (and the actress does carry conviction and attract some sympathy). Otherwise little defined, Vicky clings tenaciously to the fact that she’s engaged to be married to a solid young New York businessman named Doug (Chris Messina). He’s devoted, and not un-sexy, but designated as uncool and unchic by his drab clothes and the annoying and cloying way he has of calling Vicky "babe" every time he addresses her.

As idle and well-connected as young women in a Henry James novel, Vicky and Cristina come to Barcelona to spend the whole summer with a well-off American couple, Judy and Mark Nash (Patricia Clarkson, Kevin Dunn) in a palatial house.

The girls have barely unpacked when they’re approached at dinner by José Antonio with his brazen proposition to fly that very night to a place called Orviedo for a weekend of sights, food, wine, and love, just the three of them. All three, together? Why not? he says. No no says Vicky. Yes yes, says Cristina. Without too much logic, Vicky goes along anyway--maybe to chaperone? But--in a predictable turnabout--Cristina gets sick and Vicky sleeps with the Spanish guy. Bardem is convincingly suave, but his character is such a cliché it’s all he can do to avoid seeming fake. Some of the scenes seem more like skits than serious drama. The sometimes hazy line between acting and mere bluffing gets more blurred when his José Antonio is talking—because his character is a bluffer anyway.

Later Cristina recovers from her tummy trouble and shacks up with José Antonio, but Vicky’s world has been rocked. José Antonio describes his relationship with Maria Elena like it was a Spanish dish. It just needed a missing ingredient, a dash of something. They never figured out what. When Maria Elena comes back to stay with José Antonio--and Cristina--after a suicide attempt, out of money, paradoxically she turns out to be the sensible one. She is a painter too, we’re suddenly told, and J.A. got all his ideas from her; she regrets that he will "never reach his full potential." She discovers Cristina’s efforts to be an art photographer and turns out to be an expert on that too. She encourages Cristina and sets up a darkroom where Cristina does ridiculously huge black and white prints neither her experience level nor the studio could support: but in this movie, everything is King-Size. And sexed up. The two women even share a lesbian moment inspired by their darkroom intimacy.

The best and most original scenes are those in which José Antonio and Maria Elena start to fight, and J.A. keeps exhorting her to speak in English so Cristina can understand, so they flip dizzyingly back and forth between the two languages. In the Magnani/Lolloobrigida mode she has perfected in such recent films as Sergio Castellitto’s Don’t Move and Almodovar’s Volver, Cruz tears up the screen during her scenes. She’s compulsively watchable, but the action is to tell us only that this relationship won’t work, at least not once Cristina--the missing ingredient--decides, in her self-centered way, that her so-called development requires that she move on.

I think the reason why Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream both succeed better is that Woody Allen’s fascination with glamour and wealth in both makes sense framed by pivotal characters who are arrivistes, as in a sense he too is in posh foreign surroundings. Vicky Cristina Barcelona has no such perspective. And everybody is a little too generic to care about. Vicky seems like a favorite Eric Rohmer type--the young woman who’s not as pretty or as glamorous or aggressive as some of the others in the running but is really nicer and more appropriate for....somebody. Here, there’s no guy we get to see into or care about as if he were a human being. Bardem is skillful at carrying off his Latin-lover artist shtick. But he’s still all facade. Vicky is in Barcelona to do a thesis on Catalan culture. But she can’t even speak basic Spanish. How serious is that? Mr. Allen still seems a Brooklyn Jewish boy drooling at a world he can afford to visit, but can never possess. The voice-over narration, unnecessary and a miscalculation, is in a neutral young man’s voice, not that of anybody in the movie, further distancing us from the already shallow proceedings. None of this is the actors’ fault.

The American naïveté and stereotyping that creep into the treatment of this new European setting seem as much Woody’s as his characters’. This time he projects his fantasies, hangups and guilt trips onto people who, even when played by actors as vibrant as Bardem and Cruz, are a little too hastily sketched in—Woody is even further out of his element here than he was in his three recent films set in England. Vicky Christina Barcelona boasts nice sets and pretty people that keep you watching, but then two hours later it’s like the cliché about Chinese food--wait a minute--did I watch a Woody Allen movie? Match Point and even Cassandra’s Dream were much better, not to mention Allen in his prime.

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