Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) dir. Woody Allen
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem Penelope Cruz
Guest review by Blair Stewart
Amongst his salty New York bagels and a recent over praised English stew now sits this light and breezy Spanish tapas from Woody Allen, his 40th recipe.
Two emotionally naive American beauties played by Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall are spending their summer holidays in one of the Mediterranean's wonderments, Barcelona. Vicky (Hall) is bright, cautious, analytical about all things barring her styrofoam yuppie fiance and a questionable major in Catalan studies. Cristina (Johansson) is an impulsive 'artist' without a canvas who swoons for love without a definite grasp on the concept or the effort required. We follow them past postcards of Barcelona – the Park Guell by Gaudi, Las Ramblas, the church of Santa Maria del Mar - that reinforce why there isn't a "Vicky Cristina Calgary" in cinemas right now.
One night out on the town they are propositioned by the avant-guard Spanish painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) to join him on his plane to Oviedo for experienced sightseeing and experienced group sex. Vicky is predictably mortified by the idea and Cristina is receptive to the opportunity.
What follows is a deft love triangle with floating partners that ensnares Vicky's future husband and Juan's sexy, unhinged ex played with murderous zeal by Penelope Cruz. The action is narrated throughout by a Woody stand-in as the desires of the two friends become muddled under heat, a storytelling choice that distracted me from a wafer-thin plot with its wry, cynical amusement.
As one of the leads, Rebecca Hall stands out as excellent casting. She has the intelligence and beauty of a young Julia Roberts, and as the film's bittersweet anchor, features in a great moment with Bardem as he picks away at her defences. I've spent some time now trying to remember her last notable role, and it was her yeoman's work in Nolan's "The Prestige" as Christian Bale's cursed spouse. I now wish I could invest stock in her.
Oddly, Scarlett Johansson is perfect in the other lead despite my disappointment in how her career has developed since "Lost in Translation". Cristina is externally smart and internally vacant, a lifetime of "Um, yeah, that sounds cool..." ahead of her, which I fear is the same fate for Scarlett. The role then is tailored to her strength's and Scarlett performs it well.
Avoiding potential clichés, Javier Bardem is great as a wounded cupid, the crass opportunist or the Lothario painter. From scene-to-scene, our sympathy for him remains on unsteady ground.
Like a crash landing from 1980's Almodovar, the arrival of Penelope Cruz as the wildcard midway through energizes the film. She has genuine chemistry with Bardem, and is both scary and funny enough to reinforce my belief that she should never handcuff herself with another dull English language gig.
It’s a stretch that several characters would be smitten with Cristina beyond her attractiveness, the Spaniards are all predictably firery and the Americans clueless, but the breezy pacing of Woody Allen makes me feel like a jerk to dwell upon negatives. As with a well-made tapas, it might not be filling, but it can be very tasty and raise your anticipation for the main course. Vicky Cristina Palermo, perhaps?
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada on January 27