Aug 18, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the best Woody Allen movie in what? 15 years? Unfortunately, this is not saying much. The reason why it is compelling is because there are two bona fide movie stars in it: Penélope Cruz, in an incredibly intense, scary funny turn, and Javier Bardem, who is God's gift to women and probably the other sex as well.
When these two are together on screen it is as good as the best paella, the most delectable Spanish wine, the most delicious tapas you've ever had. I basically drooled for both of them.
However, even though I laughed here and there and I was very entertained, there are some aspects of the Woody Allen School of Express Filmmaking that really bother me.
Namely, things do not happen in the actual world. Lately, it looks like Mr. Allen gets paid by the tourism boards of European countries to create moving postcards with characters. In the case of this movie, I find it borderline offensive that Barcelona looks like a photoshopped postcard of the non-threatening tourist variety, as opposed to the vibrant, charismatic city it actually is.
In Woody Allen's movies, bohemian artists have mansions and every restaurant in Spain has a patio and a guitar player. You will say that I should extract the hair out of my ass toute suite but why can't you base a movie in such a great place and make it look authentic, instead of going through the trouble of shooting it there and making it look utterly fake, an unadventurous American's fantasy of what Spain must look like. The Disney version (and this is not a compliment). The cinematography by the great Javier Aguirresarobe is the color of paella valenciana. Everything is bathed in a golden light. Hard to tell whether it's pretty or cheesy.
As for the story, it is actually an endearing parable of a classic dilemma: do you risk all and live life to the fullest or do you play it safe and succumb to boredom and dissatisfaction? This is presented in the guise of two young friends, played by the lovely Rebecca Hall (very impressive as a neurotic control freak) and the luscious, yet strangely flat, Scarlett Johansson. I won't go into the plot, but Bardem represents love and danger and when confronted by him, each one of the young women makes the opposite choice. One experiments and explores and the other one seethes and worries.
Which brings me to my other beef with the movie. While Woody Allen has considerably toned down his misogyny in this one, the women (and to be fair the men as well) are completely one dimensional. In the case of the women, they either are tightly wound up and miserable, like Miss Hall, pliant ciphers, like Miss Johansson, or completely batshit nuts, like Miss Cruz, who not only is the fairest of them all but a formidable actress. In less cunning, dignified hands, this character would just be a crazy bitch on wheels, but Cruz makes her madness both believable and understandable. She is the best reason to see this film. She is also the only one who doesn't sound and act like a female version of Allen. Woody Allen tries hard to feel sympathy for the women, but I detect a certain patronizing tone. Call me crazy.
Meanwhile, horny Javier Bardem is a beatific and sage romantic, like a defanged version of Picasso, who tries to make 3 women happy and treats them like a benevolent father. If it wasn't because he is who he is and he looks like he does, as a character he would be totally ridiculous. He doesn't overdo the charm, he refuses to play the Ricardo Montalbán Latin lover and he finds dignity where there is none.
It is possible that Woody Allen has never been able to write multidimensional characters, but at least he once was a comic genius. Now he has mellowed (and so have the jokes), and in his golden years is content to direct his lascivious gaze at younger flesh. However, the sex scenes in this movie are shot as if he was mortally afraid to show his lust, which makes them awkward rather than erotic. The same goes for the sapphic kiss and the alleged threesome. It all feels embarrassing and forced, even with gorgeous, sexy actors like Bardem, Cruz and Johansson acting game.
Still, the movie has a wistful quality that is actually touching. It seems to say you better live life to the fullest (like they do in Europe, where they don't fret so much about sex and fat and alcohol and cigarettes and material possessions) and find your way in the world through embracing experience, not convention.

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