[14 August 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “the rich are different than you or me”, and if by dissimilar he meant boorish, obnoxious, and self-absorbed, he couldn’t have been more right - especially when it comes to their motion picture counterparts. Unless they are decked out in period piece garb and surrounded by palatial estates that warrant consideration as characters themselves, their ambiguous angst fueled by an existence outside the reality of regular people can grow oh so very tiresome. Apparently Woody Allen doesn’t think so. In his new movie, Vicky Christina Barcelona, he follows two disaffected American gals with tons of disposable…emotions as they laugh and love their way through Spain. Sadly, both the humor and the matters of the heart are indulgent and quite dull.
Having decided to spend the summer in Spain, New York gals Vicky and Christina become intoxicated with Barcelona’s beauty. One’s there ostensibly to study art and architecture. The other just wants an adventure. They enjoy indulging in the local wine, and the somewhat unwelcome advances of artist Juan Antonio. Inviting the pair to a romantic weekend in the country, he comes on very strong. Vicky hates this aspect of his personality, while Christina is intrigued. Eventually both bed the painter. Vicky is tormented by her rashness. Christina, on the other hand, moves in with Juan. It’s not long, however, before an element from the man’s past inserts itself into their situation. It’s Maria Elena, Juan’s highly strung ex-wife. Under the guise of being depressed, suicidal, and needing to protect her former husband, she becomes the third wheel in Christina’s connubial bliss. Of course, it’s not long before the passionate duo become a trio - with all the attending problems.
Sometimes, a movie just doesn’t click with you. Try as it might, and conversely, as much as you would like to meet it halfway, something stops the connection. The clash can either result in outright anger, or in most cases, downright disinterest. Such is the case with Vicky Christina Barcelona. For all its nuanced subtleties, arty experiments, references to wealth and power, and bubbling libidos, this is a film that just can’t find a way to seem real. It appears locked in a dream, drowning in painful superficialities that few would want to invest time in. Even worse, it takes characters and turns them into types, constantly forcing what could be interesting individuals into purposefully placed pigeonholes. By the end, you just want the whining to stop, to have some sense of the way life really is whack these hedonistic snobs right in the face.
Sadly, such a comeuppance never arrives. Instead, Allen drops back into casual observer mode and lets its cast simply bore us to death. From the Spanish side of things, Javier Bardem is given the thankless role of confused, compassionate lothario. On the one hand, he can’t wait to bed these statuesque Americans. He’s like horniness tempered with a come hither accent. On the other, he’s like a momma’s boy missing the teat. We’re supposed to sympathize with his undying devotion to crazy mixed up Maria Elena, to see how his pseudo soul mate torments him so. But when Penelope Cruz arrives, all tussled hair and raccoon eyes, she’s like an invader from a failed version of Warhol’s Factory. And then she speaks, and all the stereotypical shrill insanity comes cascading out. Somewhere along the line, Allen mistook psychosis for passion. Here, the two aren’t even remotely related.
Naturally, every demented ebb must have a fathomless flow, and our two ‘lost’ tourists provide a perfect pair of undaunted doormats. Of the two, Rebecca Hall’s supposedly sensible Vicky is the most aggravating. Initially, she makes a grand point about being in love with her fiancé, recognizing Bardem’s wolf in seducer’s clothing, and standing by her moral and sexual convictions. So guess who allows her libido to undo two decades of determination? For the rest of the film Hall appears unplugged, using flustered frustration as an excuse for any and all interpersonal faux pas. At least Christina makes no bones about being unstuck in her pointless, prone to hastiness life. Scarlett Johannson has a hard time conveying ditz. It frequently comes across as her character being sleepy. But if Allen was looking for someone to match his foreign actors bump for grind, this voluptuous star will definitely do.
None of this explains why Vicky Christina Barcelona is so lifeless though. Allen name checks Gaudi and other familiar artists, yet he uses their work as the most uninteresting of backdrops. Equally uninspired are the people who float around this foursome. Bardem’s father cuts an intriguing image - he’s a poet who does not publish because he doesn’t believe the world deserves his beautiful words. Quite intriguing, but Allen pushes past it for more shots of Juan Antonio making cow eyes at Christina. Even worse, moments of supposed comedy are treated in such an off hand, ill timed manner that we’re never given a chance to laugh - or better yet, a reason to do so. It’s all just so idyllic and lazy, like a typical vacation except without the planned itinerary and accidental dysentery.
It’s hard to tell if this is a failure in idea or execution. Allen’s camera is relaxed here, the cinematography frequently as drunk on the locations as the characters. He does use a rather annoying voice over narration, the explanations often doing what clever blocking and actual acting would accomplish. In fact, everything is spoon fed to us in ways which become increasingly annoying. Indeed, one’s tolerance level of this material literally evaporates as the plot and the peccadilloes plod along. While it may not be fair to judge any artist by their past, Woody Allen isn’t winning over many new fans with his recent direction. While he may never recapture the quality of his classics, it’s hard to support such wayward expressions. Vicky Christina Barcelona is really nothing more than rich people bitching. Now where exactly is the fun in that?