I haven't really kept up with Woody Allen's recent output. Out of the last ten (twelve? fifteen?) years or so, I've seen maybe three of his movies. Match Point: check (loved it). Scoop: check (hated it). Cassandra's Dream: still haven't gotten around to it. And now? Vicky Cristina Barcelona: check. I don't think I can really place this movie in the context of any "recent Woody Allen" trend without feeling like a hypocrite, so I won't. But judging from my meager personal experience, along with everything I've heard about the last decade of his work, Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a bit surprising. I went to see it with no reviews under my belt (I've made it clear elsewhere how I feel about reading reviews before seeing a movie), and to be honest I was almost going in with a chip on my shoulder, ready to hate it. Woody Allen is certainly past his prime, over the hill and so on, right? Shows what I know. While I wouldn't go so far as to add it to the Woody Allen "masterpiece" canon (along with Annie Hall, &c.), this isn't one to be dismissed as a minor work either, despite how it may initially appear.
The setup is pretty standard: two friends go to Barcelona for the summer. One's an uptight grad student (Rebecca Hall), the other's a free spirited not-quite-artist type (Scarlett Johansson). They meet dashing local painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). These are the ingredients for a good ol' fashioned love triangle, and things unfold just the way you'd expect. The lustful Cristina gets sick on the trio's first night together, and Vicky is "forced" to spend a glorious weekend alone with Juan Antonio. Despite her engagement to a safe, boring, businessman back home, she loses her shit due to wine and acoustic guitar (who wouldn't?), and ends up having sex with him. She regrets it and goes back to her research, cutting herself off from further hijinks. Cristina and Juan Antonio end up together as planned. All of this happens in an enjoyable, if predictable, manner. It's nothing you wouldn't expect from any European-inspired piece of sexual dramedy, in other words. Then, just about when you start to wonder if maybe you didn't imagine seeing her name in the credits, Penelope Cruz makes her entrance. And she is crazy.
Also: crazy awesome. More than a few reviews have already bandied about Oscar talk, and it isn't hard to see why. She goes all out as Juan Antonio's fucked up ex-wife Maria Elena, and basically steals the show. It's also amazing that, in a movie that had so far featured three of the most beautiful people on Earth, she blows them all right out of the goddam water, apparently without a shred of effort. She has this strange, alluring, manic-depressive, something that just fits perfectly. She goes from bouncing off the walls, spitting Spanish curses, and threatening physical harm, to being a perfect specimen of tender, understanding affection. And back again! There are points where it's obvious that the other actors are just as surprised as the audience at the fury of her outbursts, which is always entertaining. I actually started to feel sorry for Javier Bardem--I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that he was covered with real-life bruises after some of those on-screen assaults. Does she steal the show too much? Possibly. Perhaps after a second viewing I can judge more objectively, since I'll be a little more prepared for the onslaught.
In any case, Cruz's character fucks up the comfortable stability of Cristina and Juan Antonio's relationship in the way you'd expect. At first. Then things go in strange, wonderful new directions. And then Vicky comes back in the picture! It's a bit of a clusterfuck, and over the course of the film the love triangle transforms into multiple triangles, then a rectangle, back into a triangle, and finally into some sort of incomprehensible love dodecahedron. It's funny, it's emotional... in short, it works. I'm always pleased when a film presents a love triangle that doesn't neatly solve itself somehow (e.g. killing and/or vilifying one of the members). Allen doesn't give us any cop-outs, and I respect that.
A couple of things stood out for me after this first viewing. For one, Woody Allen himself isn't in it (this is a good thing). Yet through most of the movie, you can undoubtedly feel him speaking through the mouths of his characters. I don't know if it's just a matter of his "voice" being so strong in his writing or what... but the end result for me was that I couldn't help but imagine a bonus audio track on the DVD where Woody Allen dubs himself over every actor. I honestly don't know if I'd be able to tell the difference. At certain points it seemed like each character was little more than a physical manifestation of a different part of Allen's psyche, and I was just sitting in the theater watching him argue with himself. This isn't a deal-breaker or anything... one certainly expects plenty of Woody Allen dialogue in a Woody Allen movie. But it was a little distracting.
Another thing: it takes a little while for the characters to break away from their little stereotypes and become anything close to "real" people. Lusty artist, uptight grad student, European sexpot... these are all obvious character molds to inhabit this kind of story. Allen clearly realizes this, and he spends plenty of time delivering exactly the foibles we expect (want?) to see in these types of characters. Whether it's Cristina's bad poetry or Vicky's constant overthinking, we're not exactly surprised by any of these people until the film starts to wind down. But in the end they do end up becoming something more, despite our expectations. Shit, even Vicky's polo-wearing, golf-playing, clueless husband-to-be ends up as a sympathetic three-dimensional human being. So why the wait? Was this kind of delayed characterization intentional? Again, I think maybe a second viewing will help shed some light.
One last thing stood out: the voice over narration. It's interesting... the voice doesn't belong to anyone in the film, nor even to Allen himself (except in spirit, of course). Honestly, I can't decide how I feel about it one way or another (yet). The knee-jerk critical reaction to voice over is negative, of course. Bad writing! Unnecessary! And so on. But Woody Allen knows what he's doing, right? I can't help but think that he was using the narration to some end other than simple narrative clarity. And it didn't even seem that vital. I imagine it would be fairly easy to edit it out entirely and not lose much. So what's the deal? Just another item to pay closer attention to during round two, I suppose...
Oh and finally: if any of the above didn't interest you in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, perhaps this will: Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson make out in it. Assuming the clip hasn't already made it to youtube, it certainly will soon. So we can all look forward to millions of teenage boys thanking Woody Allen as they nervously lock their bedroom doors. Hooray!