Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Catching up with "Vicky Christina Barcelona"

Woody Allen's latest reminded very much of "Barcelona," Whit Stillman's take on Americans living in Spain from more than a decade back. This is ironic, since Stillman was often compared to Woody Allen when he first broke onto the scene.

You've got the understated narration that discusses life-moving events with the same calm tone as when it describes their meal. "Vicky ordered the clam bisque but found it too salty. Later that night she decided that she no longer loved Mark and never wanted to see him again. In the morning, she picked up her dry cleaning before she headed out to see the architectural columns in Belize."

Penelope Cruz is nominated for an Oscar in Best Supporting Actress for this film, and it's easy to see why. As the unhinged, wildly spontaneous Maria Elena, she roars in the movie somewhere around the halfway point and literally steals the show.

Up until that moment, it had been the story of lifelong friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson) spending the summer in Barcelona. One night they are propositioned by Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who introduces himself, offers to fly them down to a resort town and have sex with one or both of them, or all at once if possible. The carefree Christina agrees, bringing the engaged and comparatively uptight Vicky along as chaperon. As it happens, Christina falls ill, and while Vicky and Juan Antonio are alone they have a passionate encounter.

Still, it's clear that the flighty Christina and Juan Antonio, a renowned painter, are more temperamentally suited to one another, and soon they're living together. Around this time Maria Elena, Juan Antonio's ex-wife, turns up after a suicide attempt and moves in with them. Vicky essentially disappears around this time, as the movie becomes the triangle of Juan Antonio, Christina and Maria Elena.

It's an interesting dynamic, with the two exes constantly at each other's throats, when they're not rekindling their love. It seems they always had something missing in their tempestuous relationship, and having Christina around somehow calms their storms. But Christina is the ultimate fair-weather navigator -- as soon as she finds something stable and rewarding, whether it's a relationship or deciding between being a filmmaker or photographer, she soon grows bored with it.

As is typical of the lesser Woody Allen films, I had a hard time buying the authenticity of the main characters. Vicky, for example, after disappearing from the movie for an entire reel or so, suddenly decides she's in love with Juan Antonio and begins maneuvering to claim him. Vicky and Christina never seem like more than literary constructs, designed to act in a particular way so as to carry out the functions of the plot.

Cruz truly is vibrant in the film, which makes me able to recommend it on a marginal basis. "Vicky Christina Barcelona" is a typical Woody Allen movie with a cross-Atlantic flavor.

2.5 stars out of four

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