BOOKS AND ARTS AUGUST 29, 2008
“It’s funny, I just made the same speech to my shrink,” one character confesses to another in the midst of a heartfelt revelation in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I had to check my notes, though, to see which character said this to which, and during which heartfelt revelation, because it’s a line that could have been spoken in almost any scene. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a film in which emotions, intuitions, and states of mind are rarely experienced without being announced: “I’m a little out of control,” says the woman who is out of control; “When I drink I get brutally frank,” says the woman about to be brutally frank; “Not that I haven’t had fantasies about someone taking me out of my situation,” says the woman who has fantasies, etc., etc.
This constant self-narration would be less disconcerting if the film didn’t already have a narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) who is heroically committed to ensuring that even the most inattentive viewer won’t miss a thing, whether it be a physical event (“They arrived at the hotel,” we’re told, as characters arrive at a hotel; “They returned to the hotel,” we’re told when they return) or an emotional development (“Suddenly, thoughts started taking precedence over feelings, thoughts about life and love”). Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the cinematic equivalent of a book on tape: a movie that watches itself for you and tells you what it sees.
The heroines of Allen’s experiment in exposition are the titular Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), two pretty twentysomethings spending a summer in titular Barcelona. In a restaurant, they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a soulful seducer (also, a painter) who immediately suggests that the three of them go away for the weekend to drink good wine and make love together--which, if you’re Javier Bardem, is evidently the kind of thing you can say to women you’ve just met without getting punched.
Cristina is enthusiastic about the idea, but Vicky less so--unsurprising given that our painstaking narrator has already explained that the former is a passionate free spirit and the latter, a cautious planner who prefers stability to studliness. Erotic adventurism wins out, though, and the ladies decide to go away with Juan Antonio. There is an intentional seduction that is aborted and, later, an accidental one that is consummated. Soon enough, Juan Antonio’s tempestuous ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) shows up to offer still more opportunities for sexual arithmetic. (For those now rushing to buy tickets online, be forewarned that Allen’s mind may be dirty, but his lens is chaste: Yes, there is a Johansson-Cruz coupling and a Johansson-Cruz-Bardem tripling; no, you don’t see either one. Instead, there’s a brief kiss and then a fadeout and--of course!--narration, with Johansson tastefully explaining, “And it happened very naturally for both of us.”)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an above-average effort by Allen’s recent standards, but sadly for the film (and more sadly for the standards) that still doesn’t make it much good. Johansson gives perhaps her weakest performance in a string of unmemorable ones (The Black Dahlia, The Prestige, The Other Boleyn Girl), but the fault is largely Allen’s. Though he obviously (too obviously) loves her lazy sensuality, he struggles to write a character suited to it. When, on the verge of seduction by Juan Antonio, Cristina declares, “If you don’t start undressing me soon, this is going to turn into a panel discussion,” we see Johansson’s lips move but hear Allen talking. (The libidinous mood is not enhanced.) British actress Hall fares better as a rare female stand-in for Allen’s nervous, self-conscious persona, though even she can’t rescue a line as remote from spoken language as, “Let’s not get into one of those turgid, categorical arguments.”
It is Allen’s good fortune that he cast Bardem, the rare actor whose charisma and personal gravity could overcome the inherent silliness of Juan Antonio, an embarrassing assembly of Mediterranean lover clichés. But it is Cruz who most clearly shrugs off the overwritten script and steals nearly every scene she is in. Gifted, gorgeous, and mad as a snake, her Maria Elena is a whirlwind of carnal volatility and, by far, the funniest element in the film.
Which is a large part of the problem. Though Vicky Cristina Barcelona has the shape of a sex farce, it lacks the reckless spirit. And while it occasionally feints toward sincere emotional exploration, its talky, over-literal observations never scratch beneath the surface either. There’s nothing in the movie that particularly offends, but also nothing--beyond the ravishing Cruz and the ravishing Spanish scenery--that particularly appeals. The last line in the film spoken by a character (naturally, there are a few paragraphs of narration left) is: “It was a passing thing, and now it’s over.” Indeed.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.