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Dustin Putman

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Vicky Cristina Barcelona  (2008)
2 Stars
Directed by Woody Allen.
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson, Kevin Dunn, Chris Messina, Julio Perillan, Josep Maria Domenech, Pablo Schreiber, Carrie Preston, Zak Orth; narrated by Christopher Evan Welch.
2008 – 96 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving sexuality).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 13, 2008.
Again and again, veteran writer-director Woody Allen has shot copious cinematic love letters to Manhattan, and more recently has shifted his setting to England with 2005's "Match Point," 2006's "Scoop," and 2008's "Cassandra's Dream." In the sumptuous "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," Allen turns his attention to the rich history and romantic sights of Barcelona, a picturesque city located along Spain's eastern seaboard. The film is not an extraordinary achievement for the filmmaker, whose inspired heyday in decades' past has led to a wobbly twenty-first century of uneven efforts, but it is quixotic, thoughtful and decidedly dignified in its lack of compromise for the sake of a happy ending.

In lieu of tackling a straightforward comedy or drama this time, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" takes inspiration from the works of Eric Rohmer (1983's "Pauline at the Beach") in its naturalistic slice-of-life look at two young women still trying to decide what they want to make of their futures. American friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) arrive in Barcelona for a summer of tourism and soul searching. The more practical, levelheaded Vicky would like to think she has everything figured out, but her impending marriage to the nice but bland Doug (Chris Messina) is called into question when she and Cristina take up seductive local artist Juan Antonio's (Javier Bardem) invitation to spend the weekend with him in Oviedo.

Against her better judgment, Vicky's unforeseen one-on-one time with Juan Antonio while Cristina is temporarily waylaid with food poisoning leads to a heated sexual encounter. Vicky's feelings for this handsome stranger cannot be denied, but she tries her best to shield them as Juan Antonio next turns his sights to the more adventurous Cristina. As Vicky tries to return her attention to the safe and comfortable Doug, Cristina finds herself entering into an unorthodox three-way relationship with Juan Antonio and his tortured spitfire of an ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz).

In "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," Woody Allen allows his story to play out as life does, full of messy starts and stops, chance encounters, and feelings left unconsummated. The picture works as a travelogue—Barcelona and the surrounding areas of Spain are captured by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (2001's "The Others") in all of their sun-dappled, intoxicating, old-world grandeur—and it also works, at least most of the time, as a multilayered romance between people testing their own boundaries and values as they relate to sex and relationships. Vicky's surprising desire for Juan Antonio after her initial hostile brush-off of him is at odds with her beliefs in monogamy and safety. Thus, when Doug arrives in Barcelona during the latter half of the summer, Vicky does not have the strength or the courage to turn her back on what she has planned for her future.

For Cristina, her views are more willingly open, and when Maria Elena comes back into Juan Antonio's life after a botched suicide attempt, the three of them make a go at a loose, sexually uninhibited living arrangement. With their guidance, Cristina begins to explore her artistic side in a less self-critical fashion, and takes a liking to photography. Is that what she ultimately wants, though? Cristina is unsure, and it's only a matter of time before her mutual love affair with Juan Antonio and Maria Elena will come to an end, too.

The ongoing narration by Christopher Evan Welch is occasionally a little awkward and too on-the-nose—when one character wakes up from a restless sleep, Welch humorously recites via voiceover, "She awoke during the darkest hour of night"—but it also takes on the lush feel of reading a novel. There's no real purpose for the narration to be there, but it works, helping to add a bit of ruminative depth to characters who otherwise would be less fleshed-out. This attribute extends to the plot itself, which is less about point-A-to-point-B story points and more about depicting a few summer months in the lives of people exploring their options without the guarantee that anything will be changed by the end of August.

It has always been Woody Allen's forte to present free-floating conversations and language between characters that overlaps and accurately approximates the way humans really talk to one another. What is interesting here is that he has gone one step further and asked for all of the actors to almost impersonate his own nebbish, quirky, self-deprecating onscreen persona. It's a bit disconcerting at first to see Scarlett Johansson (2008's "The Other Boleyn Girl"), for example, acting like Allen, but it's also sort of charming in an oddball kind of way. The performances are all very good, adapting to the intended speech patterns with ease. Doing especially accomplished work are Rebecca Hall (2006's "The Prestige"), understated and radiant as Vicky, and Penélope Cruz (2005's "Sahara"), whose Maria Elena is a force to be reckoned with. Cruz's comedic abilities are excellent—watch the way she nonchalantly tells Cristina that she has had thoughts of killing her—shading a character who is a loopy, unpredictable, sexy loose cannon.

As Juan Antonio, Javier Bardem (2007's "No Country for Old Men") is appropriately sensual, but also likable, which is important in plausibly setting up why Vicky and Cristina are so drawn to him. Finally, Patricia Clarkson (2007's "No Reservations") is poignant in her reading of Judy Nash, a family friend of Vicky's whom they stay with while in Barcelona. Judy loves her husband, Mark (Kevin Dunn), but she's no longer in love with him, and Clarkson's quietly regretful character stands as a provocative counterpoint to the kind of life Vicky may have if she settles for Doug.

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" doesn't cover much fresh territory in the Woody Allen canon, and the ending, as truthful as it may be, doesn't add up to a lot in the long run. The pleasure comes, then, from spending time with well-written adult characters who are worth following around for an hour and a half. In an age when the big screen is overflowing with children posing as grown-ups, Allen treats his ensemble with considerable intelligence and skill, giving each of them the interests, hobbies, flaws, views and vulnerability that make up the foundation of true-to-life protagonists. "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is a comparatively minor success on Allen's directorial résumé, but its reflective depiction of post-collegiate confusion and yearning rings true.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman