Woody Allen's latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, garnered one big award this year, the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy. Ever since the film was released in August, it has been a picture of mixed reactions, with critics generally bestowing kind-but-not-glowing reviews on it and general audiences indicating that it's overrated. So even with lowered expectations, I was happy when Vicky Cristina Barcelona arrived on DVD in my mailbox the other day.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is about two women, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who travel to Barcelona for the summer. One night at dinner, a handsome but rather blunt artist named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) approaches them and asks if they would like to fly to his hometown for the weekend - and have sex with him. Vicky, who's engaged to be married, is appalled, but Cristina, while not immediately open to carefree sex, is intrigued. The two women decide to go with him - with no promises of sex - and surprisingly, it is Vicky who is first seduced by Juan. As time progresses, though, Cristina and Juan begin a relationship, only to have it disrupted by Juan's rather emotional ex-wife Maria (Penélope Cruz) - though her arrival only adds complexities to their relationship rather than destroy it. As this goes on, Vicky begins to realize that her fiance isn't as interesting as Juan.
That may not be the best marketing slant to what Vicky Cristina Barcelona is about, but Allen has concocted a complex - and yet simple - tale of love, lust and sex, and how those go together. The story won't cater to everyone, but it's well written, fanciful and surprisingly engaging. Even if you can't relate to the characters, they are interesting. Coupled with the incredibly well-chosen narration by Christopher Evan Welch, the characters are treated like anthropological case studies, which adds to the charm and subtle complexity of the picture.
The movie is nice-looking and not all that different from Allen's other recent works; it won't win any directorial awards, yet the style complements the screenplay without distracting from it. Again, the choice of going the narration route was a great one.
All in all, I really liked Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but the fact that it won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy angers me. It may have been the best movie of the five nominated (though I'd argue that In Bruges is better), but its victory once again exemplifies the idiocy of separating musicals and comedies from dramas. The intentions are well founded, since comedies generally get poor recognition come award season, but musicals or comedies rarely win this award. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not a comedy. It has its funny moments, and it is lighthearted, but it is still a drama. A comedy should be recognized for how funny it is, and no one would say Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a funny movie - and certainly not the funniest of 2008. Since the characters don't break out into song, either, it isn't a musical. So how does it deserve to win a Golden Globe for a category it doesn't belong to?
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a pretty good movie, and better than what others had told me (I'm looking at you, brother). Still, it takes the right audience to truly enjoy the picture, and it is by no means a standout in any genre.
Review by Alice Graves (C+)
I used to think that Woody Allen could do no wrong. When I lived in New York I went to see each new movie on opening night. I stood out in the freezing rain to see "Hannah and Her Sisters" but it was worth it. I came away from that movie renewed, inspired, and optimistic about the possibilities of love and life. It was his most uncynical film.
Allen's early films were howlers aimed at a college-educated (preferably in comparative literature), urban audience. Like "Love and Death," his hysterical historical movie about a plot to assassinate Napoleon with references to philosophy, literature and the Marx Brothers. Thirty-three years later, it is a classic.
I even liked "Hollywood Ending," his own Hollywood ending of sorts. In it he conjured Sophocles by creating the role of the film director who becomes hysterically blind and can't see the movie he is making. It's hilarious but it has essence. It has something to tell the audience. The movies coming out of Hollywood are not worth seeing. In the end, the Allen character moves to Paris, where his work (like that of Jerry Lewis) is appreciated.
Allen made two more films in the US before leaving for London, where he made Hitchcockian thrillers "Match Point" and "Cassandra's Dream," with "Scoop" thrown in the middle for a comic breather.
And then on to the Continent.
As much as I hate to say this, I was disappointed in "Vicky Christina Barcelona." I loved the city of Barcelona used as a backdrop. I am ready to move there. But the characters were shallow and the story was murky. The character with the most depth, who we barely saw enough of, was the American expatriate Judy, played by Patricia Clarkson. She is simply unforgettable as a woman who knows the score, and her scenes made the movie worth seeing. Scarlett Johansson is beautiful to look at, as are Javier Bardem, Rebecca Hall and Penelope Cruz, but their characters were all one-dimensional.
Maybe Allen is trying to tell us that Americans are gullible and know nothing about love. But Bardem and Cruz, so passionately and violently in love, are not convincing either. Yes, their love inspires them to create art, but is art love or is it merely art?
Allen is brilliant at making his locations a character in his films, and his actors are lovely to look at. I even thought Bardem was sort of cute as the psycho killer in "No Country for Old Men," but I'll take that one up with my shrink.
If you're wavering on whether or not to see "Vicky Christina Barcelona," I say see it, because it's Woody Allen which makes it better than most of the tripe on multiplex screens these days. But don't expect the Woody Allen who made "Annie Hall" or "Take the Money and Run" and don't expect to roll in the aisles howling with laughter, your giant cola spurting through your nostrils. Woody Allen, like a fine wine, has mellowed. Just inhale and sip.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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