Last year I suggested – in a review of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine – that the director’s recent career was, generally speaking, better than many critical fans and fan critics alike cared to admit. That film in particular is a recent highlight, and while there have been a few duff efforts during the past decade, Allen’s output hasn’t been too bad considering his self-imposed heavy workload. While only Blue Jasmine holds its own when compared to his very best work, the suggestion that he is on some kind of permanent decline is wide of the mark.
Even allowing for inflation (via Box Office Mojo’s calculations), three of Allen’s five most profitable films have come in recent years; Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a slight tale about two women who fall for the same man during a brief stay in Catalonia, is one of those three. (The other two being Blue Jasmine and Midnight In Paris. The older films in the top 5 are, predictably, Manhattan and Annie Hall, with Hannah And Her Sisters just behind. Even if some fans and critics maintain that Woody is in decline it’s interesting to note that his films are more popular than ever with the general public.) It was well-received when released in 2008, partly as a result of a lively supporting performance by Penélope Cruz and its use of postcard-worthy locations, but I actually found myself grumbling throughout because of its snooze-inducing predictability; with a sumptuous Barcelona backdrop and the excellent photography of Javier Aguirresarobe it certainly looks good, but the movie is filled with far too many of the director’s usual tics and quirks and – rather too often for my liking – it feels like Allen-by-numbers. His staunchest defenders will point out that few filmmakers embody the auteur theory quite like Woody, and that Vicky Cristina Barcelona is yet another work backing up such a claim, but there comes a point when you have to seriously question the endless recycling of certain character types and plot devices, and wonder whether a degree of laziness is to blame or whether it is simply a necessity for a writer dealing with a self-imposed one-film-per-year schedule.
Rebecca Hall stars as Vicky, Scarlett Johansson as her friend Cristina. This is the third time Johansson has worked with Allen, and while it’s not as good as Match Point, it’s a far better effort than the dreadful Scoop. At the beginning of the film the two are seen embarking on a six-month stay in Spain, staying with Vicky’s distant relatives. (They are introduced by a narrator (Christopher Welch, who sadly died last year of lung cancer at the age of 48) whose interjections grow more and more tiresome and unnecessary each time he is tasked with carefully explaining everything that is going on, as if Allen believes his entire audience to be made up of five-year-olds in need of heavy fact-feeding.) While enjoying the Barcelona nightlife they meet local artist Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem), who attempts to seduce them both in a restaurant, before settling instead for seducing one at a time in the city of Oviedo.
Vicky, however, is already engaged to the young and reliable Doug (Chris Messina), and so the coast is clear for the more adventurous Cristina to shack up with Juan. Unfortunately the artist’s tempestuous and troubled former wife, Maria Elena (Cruz), re-appears on the scene. Juan and Maria Elena have had a stormy past relationship, but an undeniable attraction between them remains; however just when it looks as if Cristina is being marginalized she strikes up a photography-based friendship with Maria Elena and the three of them become lovers. Meanwhile Vicky is unsure about her attraction to Doug and struggles to forget her one night fling with Juan.
My list of issues with the predictability of the plot here is long. Perhaps Allen simply isn’t interested in surprising people any more, but it’s impossible not to roll the eyes at the re-appearance of certain themes: People in relationships getting cold feet? Check. Infidelity? Check. Characters who bump into one another by chance in the street in a city of millions of people? Check. A glut of restaurant-set scenes? Check. Female characters who seemingly only exist to fulfill male fantasies? Check. The appearance of a young, preppy American male? Check. And so on and so on.
More alarmingly the characters are disappointing, thinly-drawn sketches of people, and each is highly stereotypical in their own way. The academic, slightly-bookish and steady Vicky is, of course, not as sexually promiscuous as the non-bookish, non-academic and impulsive Cristina. The two characters are friends who are very different from each other, and Allen’s decision to accentuate their differences by making them exact opposites is weak. As for Juan? Well, he’s not merely an artist but is – as you would probably expect, a tortured artist, reliant on the similarly-passionate artistic muse Maria Elena. Are all artists tortured in Woody Allen’s world? How about successful ones who just happen to be perfectly happy for a change? And what’s with the sudden obsession with young, wealthy Americans dressed like J. Crew / GAP / Ralph Lauren models who have good jobs in finance? It’s starting to seem as weird as it is boring.
Allen’s recent use of European locations is also something that has largely disappointed me. Many people have praised Vicky Cristina Barcelona for its use of the Catalan capital’s architecture – in particular the distinctive work of Antoni Gaudí – but while those buildings and park fixtures are undeniably stunning it makes for unimaginative filmmaking, as if the director simply hopped on and off a tour bus around the city when scouting for locations. If Allen were to be believed all doors and windows in Barcelona open to reveal the towering Sagrada Família and his other recent movies set in Rome, Paris and London have been similarly obvious; it’s one thing to tick off the great sights of Europe as a tourist, but another thing entirely to rely on them so wholeheartedly as a film director whose reputation is partly built on his ability to visually describe the heart and soul of a city. There’s more to Barcelona than Gaudí, just as there’s more to Paris than Montmartre and more to Rome than the Trevi Fountain. Setting numerous scenes in the Park Güell simply doesn’t cut the mustard, although in his defence at least Allen’s affinity for the city and country can be felt. Granted the style of film is completely different, but for a more considered take on modern Barcelona that uses locations in the city in an interesting fashion see Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, which coincidentally also stars Bardem.
The acting here is generally good. Hall and Johansson are fine in the two main roles, and the former is arguably the better of the two, her character effectively acting as Allen’s mouthpiece (he doesn’t appear in this one, which is a shock as I’m pretty sure a few years back he’d have somehow written the Juan role for himself). Cruz picked up the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work as Maria Elena, but that’s one of the recent Oscar decisions that I don’t agree with at all, although I can see why it got noticed; it’s a showy, eye-catching performance, full of histrionics that are designed to reveal the character’s passion and artistic semi-madness. Cue crazy hair and angry wild-eyed shouting nearly every time Cruz appears on screen. It’s a little tiresome, to say the least, although by the time she first appeared I’d already lost nearly all of my patience.
Unfortunately that happened because I was fed up with Allen recycling ideas, characters and themes from earlier movies, and failing to add a sprinkle of freshness; he doesn’t really seem to be inspired by Barcelona or inspired by any of these characters, sadly, despite the best efforts of the actors and Aguirresarobe to paper over the cracks. It’s not an offensive film by any means, and as a light comedy it has its moments, but too often it just seems bland. Even at a mere 94 minutes Vicky Cristina Barcelona seems light on ideas.
Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz
Running Time: 94 minutes