Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
Compartmentalizing Woody Allen's movies is a truly daunting task (though CC2K's Lance Carmichael did an amazing and thorough job of discussing most of them here). However, for all intents and purposes, they can be lumped into one of three categories: comedy, intense drama, and maudlin “romance.” The first two are easily defined and recognized. Woody Allen's comedies feature either outright lunacy, or nebbishy nerds doing lunatic-y things. By contrast, his dramas skew toward the macabre, and explore the darker sides of outwardly good (if spoiled) people. The third category though is a lot murkier. Allen's romances are never straight love stories, instead exploring complex sentimental and sexual circumstances. None of his characters in these films ever seems to walk away unscathed, and at the end, they are either unaffected by the events, or worse off for them.
Woody's latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, falls squarely into this third category, and this is its biggest problem. Simply put: I enjoy Woody Allen's comic sensibilities, and I deeply respect his thoughts on the darker sides of human nature. However, when it comes to matters of the heart, I can think of few people whose opinion I'd trust (or want to hear) less.
When VCB begins, we meet the two titular main characters as they are newly arrived in the titular city. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is a self-serious grad student who spends her days looking at art and her nights pining away for her respectable and oh-so-grounded fiance Doug. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) by contrast is a sexual firebrand, there for adventure after recently leaving her latest boyfriend. (In years past, a role like this in a Woody Allen movie would go to a woman with whom he was sexually active like Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow. Now in his waning years, he populates these parts with women he merely wishes he could be sexually active with.) The two women's vacation hits a snag when the have a chance encounter with Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, who has mysteriously shed his No Country bowl cut), a talented painter who – rumor has it – attacked his ex-wife with a knife. A whirlwind weekend with the three of them leads to intended sex gone wrong, unintended sex gone right, and enough romantic complications to fill a comedy of manners. Soon enough, Juan Antonio is deeply entwined in both their lives, a situation made far more difficult when his ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) reappears, and Vicky's fiance Doug arrives. By the time the credits roll, shots are fired, hearts are broken, and the only person even remotely happy is Doug, who by then we are meant to think of as an asshole. A happy movie-going experience for all!
To dispense with the positives first, the performances in Vicky Cristina Barcelona are top-notch, as they are in most of Allen's films. Say what you will about the man, he writes the sorts of roles that make actors drool: deep, conflicted and multi-dimensional. Rebecca Hall does tremendous work as Vicky, a feat all the more remarkable given that she's the least recognizable face amongst both the primary and secondary leads (you MIGHT recognize her as Christian Bale's wife in The Prestige, though she was overshadowed by Bale's lover, played by…Scarlett Johansson). Johansson, now with several of Allen's movies under her belt, does a great job of playing this latest iteration of Woody's ideal woman: sexually liberated, and ultimately unattainable. And damn it all if I didn't end up truly liking Javier Bardem, despite the fact that his character is someone I'd love to be able to punch in the throat while wearing brass knuckles. Kevin Dunn and Patricia Clarkson are both great as always in their supporting roles as Vicky and Cristina's host family, though I suppose I question the wisdom of casting actors this talented for what are essentially thankless roles. Chris Messina does his best with Doug, though it's hard to come across positively when the writer and director clearly despises you. Lastly, Penelope Cruz shows that her singular Spanish intensity was just perfect for this role (and her casting was entirely due to this, and had NOTHING to do with the on-screen kiss between her and Johansson).
The problem with Vicky Cristina Barcelona though is…well…everything else. If I get the sense the the writer and/or director of a film has a strong, passionate vision, I am very likely to follow them through the end of the film and into coffeehouse discussions for weeks afterwards. However, any (and I mean ANY) closer examination of VCB outside of a series of random events shared by a handful of characters shows a movie without a clear message, attempting to prove a point that can't be proven. Putting two disparate characters into the same situation is a great, time-tested cinematic and literary device, and if done correctly, can yield terrific fodder for drama. However, in the case of this film, we have an uptight broad who finds herself unhappy with her equally uptight husband, partnered against a promiscuous free spirit who won't allow herself to be happy in any situation, no matter how wild and exciting it may be. And just to drive the point home, these storylines are peppered with tidbits about the host family, who have been together for years, yet are trapped in a loveless marriage. Awesome. The only thing that becomes clear here is that for all his genius, Woody Allen seems to have a great deal of contempt for conventional love and marriage, and that the only way to be happy with someone else is to be completely ignorant of how unhappy they are with you. Thirty years ago, a film like this MIGHT have provided Woody Allen with yet another accolade for his unique perspective on life, but today, it just feels like the pinings of a sad older man.
There was a time when, if asked, I would have said without reservation that I loved Woody Allen movies. More recently, I would have said that my feelings toward his work was more nuanced and complicated, though still mostly positive. Now however, thanks to Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I have learned that love is impossible.