Friday, August 22, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008, Woody Allen)

As a once-rabid Woody Allen fan, I still feel compelled to watch all of his new films in the theatre. On the other hand, having been burned by a number of his late-period works (Jade Scorpion, Melinda and Melinda, Scoop) I know better than to expect a great deal from those new releases. On that basis, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a nice surprise, with plenty of gorgeous location work to match one of Allen’s more interesting screenplays of recent years. The movie’s central premise- the freewheeling (read: European) lifestyle pitted against the upper-middle-class American marriage- feels overly programmatic in spots, with the European way coming strongly out of the gate. After all, the combo of studly Javier Bardem and crazy-sexy Penelope Cruz is hard to top, especially compared to Rebecca Hall’s cheesedick businessman fiancĂ©, played by Chris Messina. But if the match seems uneven at first, it begins to make sense near the end, when Hall’s marital malaise coincides with the emotional explosion of Cruz’s rekindled relationship with Bardem, which leaves Hall conflicted, and sort of floating between the two worlds, now dissatisfied with both (the story ends on a perfect tentative note). And if you notice I haven’t mentioned Scarlett Johansson yet, that’s not an accident- Vicky Cristina Barcelona is her third film with Allen, but the first in which she seems somewhat tangential to the story, which of course is a good thing. Here she has little to do besides provide an outsider viewpoint into the relationship between Bardem and Cruz, so that we know what Hall’s getting into before she does. In addition, Johansson’s essential blankness only serves to underline the tumultuous emotional current generated by her Spanish bedmates (it’s only when the scene is really about Johansson that she founders). As for the other principals, Bardem is reliably sweet and Cruz is a firecracker, but it’s really Hall’s film, and she’s more than up to the task (click here for more effusive praise). Vicky Cristina Barcelona is hardly top-tier Woody, but it’s his best film this century, and definitely worth a look. Rating: 6 out of 10.

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