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2 reviews, 7 user ratings

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Vicky Cristina Barcelona
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by Peter Sobczynski

"I Had This Perfect Dream, This Dream Was Me And You And You and You"
4 stars

Although he has made enough masterpieces in his long and prolific career to rate himself a position on any reasonable list of great American filmmakers, Woody Allen’s cinematic output in the last decade or so has been so wildly uneven--since the release of his last flat-out masterpiece, the wildly underrated 1997 effort “Deconstructing Harry,” his output has mostly consisted of movies running the gamut from uninspired misfires like “Celebrity” and “Hollywood Ending” to outright disasters like the inexplicable “Anything Else”--that attending one of his films, which used to be the closest thing to a sure thing during his heyday in the 1970’s and 1980’s, has become a crapshoot in which audiences can never be sure if they are going to be getting a taste of the good old days or witnessing a reminder of just low his artistic stock has plunged in recent years. Ironically, when you consider his self-professed reputation as a confirmed urbanite who would rather eat mashed yeast than leave his beloved New York, some of his most invigorating work in recent years has come when he has left Manhattan in order to tell stories set in other cities such as Venice, where he shot the delightful musical “Everyone Says I Love You” and London, the location for the surprise critical and commercial success “Match Point.” However, as his London-based follow-ups “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream” painfully proved, the excitement brought upon by a new location seems to last for only one project and he needs to move on so as not to risk presenting viewers with another cinematic dead shark. With his latest film, the sexy comedy “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” he has moved on to Spain and the change in scenery once again seems to have agreed with his artistic temperament--it is easily the most breezily entertaining thing that he has done in a long time.

The film opens as two American friends, the cerebral and somewhat uptight Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and the heedless and free-spirited Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), arrive in Barcelona to spend the summer with friends of Vicki’s family so that grad student Vicki can further her work in Catalan cultural studies while Cristina begins to pursue a vague interest in photography. Because they are young and beautiful and artistically inclined, it is only a matter of time before they run across Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a hunky artist with a mysterious and tempestuous past--there are rumors that he sleeps with practically everyone and that his marriage to the fiery Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) ended when one tried to kill the other in a fit of jealous passion--and because they are young and beautiful (and artistically inclined, it is only a matter of time after formally meeting them (okay, maybe two minutes tops) before he is proposing that the three of them jet off for a weekend to Catalonia to intensely study the local architecture and each other, if you know what I mean. Vicky, who has a safe and safely boring fiancée back home, is predictably offended by the presumptuousness of Juan’s suggestion while the always-adventurous Cristina is duly intrigued and eventually convinces Vicky to come along. Alas, things don’t work out quite as planned--just before consummating things with Juan, Cristina is knocked out for a few days with a sever case of food poisoning and during her convalescence , it is Vicky who winds up in bed with Juan for one grand night of passion.

After returning to Spain, the three more or less pick up where they probably would have been were it not for those unexpected detours in Catalonia--Vicky pretends that her night with Juan never happened, even agreeing to move her wedding forward when her fiancée suggests coming over to Spain to do it there, and Cristina, whose next rendezvous with Juan is more successful, winds up moving in with him in order to live the life of a passionate artistic type and, based on the available evidence, to buff every square inch of Juan‘s place with her backside. For Cristina, her new existence is briefly upended when Maria Elena unexpectedly arrives after a botched suicide attempt and Juan invites her to stay for an indefinite period of time. Although neither one is especially thrilled with the presence of the other at first, Cristina and Maria Elena eventually strike up a friendship (and something more) and before too long, they and Juan have formed a happy threesome--it turns out that Cristina is the “missing element” that allows the other two to live and love under the same roof without driving them to want to kill each other. However, both friends find their long-cherished notions of romance and fidelity undergoing surprising changes before too long as Cristina grows weary of her newfound bohemian lifestyle and wishes for a normal relationship while Vicky begins to suspect that she got married too soon and contemplates straying, first with a fellow student in her Spanish language class and later with Juan, a move that winds up marking her in unexpected ways.

On the surface, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” may not seem like one of Allen’s more ambitious efforts--take away the cultural references and the oddly non-salacious tone (and we’ll get into that a little bit later) and what you have in theory is essentially a fusion of the works of Edith Wharton and Henry James (which always had callow Americans learning about life and love, often the hard way, while abroad in Europe) and the immortal menage-a-trois-abroad sexploitation epic “Summer Lovers,” albeit with an IQ measuring into three digits instead of one. That said, the lack of any obvious pretension seems to have loosened something up in him--even his ordinarily rigid shooting style of doing everything in long takes has been shaken up here--and while the film may not have the heft and meaning of something like “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” it is far more enjoyable than such other leaden stabs at farcical comedy as “Scoop” or “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.” And unlike those movies, it scores some big laughs here and there from keen displays of verbal and visual wit (our first close-up of Juan as he approaches Vicky and Cristina in a restaurant is especially priceless) and even contains one entire sequence that deserves a place among Allen‘s greatest comedic achievements--the ill-fated first hook-up between Juan and Cristina that begins with her coyly telling him “I’ll go to your room, but you’ll have to seduce me” and ends with her growing so frustrated at his slow-but-sure methods that she finally declares “If you don’t start undressing me soon, this is going to turn into a panel discussion.” Allen also gets a lot of mileage out of his clever use of an amusingly officious third-person narrator (voiced by Christopher Evan Welch) that both helps move the story along (by supplying us with necessary back-story) and adds an extra At the same time, there is a serious undercurrent to the proceedings as well, especially once Maria Elena enters the proceedings, but unlike most of his other attempts to blend comedy and drama in recent years, Allen never lets the serious stuff overwhelm the comedy. Instead, he finds the proper balance between the two that allows each to inform the other in surprisingly effective ways.

The film is also aided by the uniformly strong performances from yet another excellent ensemble cast recruited by Allen, a significant achievement this time around when you consider that the majority of the players have never worked with him before. Although Johansson has never really demonstrated any discernible flair for comedy in her past roles, most glaringly in “Scoop,” her last collaboration with Allen (though to be fair, the material in that one was so weak that even the most naturally gifted farceurs would have had problems with getting laughs out of it), she is quite funny here as the impulsive Cristina and her by-play with her co-stars, comedic and otherwise, feels fresh and unforced. As the florid Spaniards whose overheated passions inevitably get the best of them and anyone (un)fortunate to fall into their orbit, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz both do wonderful jobs of skewering the usual conventions of hot-blooded artistic types suffering from an endless and cureless case of amour fou. Bardem actually manages to make you forget his indelible turn in last year’s “No Country for Old Men” with his portrayal of a man whose definitions of honesty and openness will raise more than a few eyebrows. As for Cruz, this is easily the best, deepest and funniest performance she has ever given in English and it is just as good as her justifiably hailed work in “Volver”--this film should be the final nail in the coffin of any doubts as to her acting abilities. However, it is the least-known member of the cast, Rebecca Hall (you may recall her as Christian Bale’s doomed wife in “The Prestige”), who winds up stealing the show from her more famous co-stars. Her role as the neurotic Vicky is obviously meant to serve as a substitute for Allen, who does not appear in the film himself, but while most of the other actors who have found themselves in similar roles over the years have tended to offer up bizarre impersonations of their director in lieu of actual performances, she has instead found a way to play the character that allows the Allenesque moments to come through (such as when she describes Juan as “a charmingly candid wife-beater”) while still making her into a real person with a real personality instead of coming off as nothing more than an elaborate parlor trick. Here’s hoping that Allen notices this and decides to include her in the loose company of repertory players that he has amassed over the years--based on their collaboration here, I can’t wait to see what they might come up with next.

I really enjoyed “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” a lot--it is the kind of Woody Allen film that even those not ordinarily predisposed to his work could readily enjoy--but there is one aspect to it that is preventing me from turning this strong recommendation into a flat-out rave and that has to do with the sexual content of the film, or rather the lack of it. I am fully aware that Allen has never been one to depict on-screen eroticism in any significant manner throughout his career (even when making a film entitled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask”) and in that regard, his relative reticence hear probably should not come as a surprise. However, this is a story that is fairly bursting with sensuality and erotic tension throughout and to handle such material in as restrained of a manner as he does here seems strangely counter-productive to the film’s professed theme about the necessity for one to experience a little spontaneity in life in order to better figure out what you want out of life. (And no, this isn’t simply me complaining that there isn’t enough nudity on display from the admittedly gorgeous cast--Penelope Cruz is frequently undressed in the upcoming “Elegy” and it doesn’t help that particular disaster one bit). That said, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is one of the more engaging Woody Allen films to come along in years--easily his most consistent amusing and likable work since “Everyone Says I Love You” and while it may not quite belong in the top ranks alongside such avowed masterpieces as “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” or “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” it is the first one of his comedies in quite a while to at least deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as those titles.

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originally posted: 08/15/08 14:00:00
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User Comments

11/23/09 Meeper A pleasant tale of bohemian love with Scarlett as radiant as ever 4 stars
12/25/08 mr.mike Minor complaint for abrupt ending , otherwise very good. 4 stars
9/16/08 Carla A. Woody Allen is back! And Cruz and Bardem do not dissappoint. 4 stars
9/01/08 ravenmad i loved it. Great writing, interesting storyline, and passionate. 5 stars
8/17/08 Samantha Pruitt Rebecca Hall was really great, loved Penelope Cruz, great woody allen flick! 5 stars
8/15/08 bruno priani iafter the boring scoop , woody allen is again good 5 stars
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  15-Aug-2008 (PG-13)
  DVD: 13-Jan-2009


  DVD: 13-Jan-2009

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