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No Spain, no gain

Woody takes a siesta in Vicky Cristina Barcelona
By PETER KEOUGH  |  August 14, 2008
1.5 1.5 Stars

0815_BarceIN

Many are hailing Woody Allen’s new film, claiming it to be a “return to form.” I agree: he’s returned to the earliest form of his career, the monologue. Talk talk talk: Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Art Films for Dummies. One cannot escape the smug, droning voice of the “Narrator” (Christopher Evan Welch) as he relates in redundant detail what the pretty pictures have already illustrated. Can everyone follow? Don’t worry about the big words — they’re there so smart viewers can nod knowingly.

But who is he, this Narrator? He’s not Woody or anyone in the story. Is he the voice of God? Woody’s muse? Woody’s therapist? Or is it the voice of a filmmaker who’s grown too lazy or inept or complacent to make any effort to be cinematic?

Whatever, the Narrator does provide a distraction from the story’s collection of stereotypes and tired Allenesque tropes. Cristina (current Allen fetish Scarlett Johansson) takes the flibbertigibbet Annie Hall role; she is (as the Narrator keeps telling us) an aspiring filmmaker with an anarchic Philosophy of Love that compels her to ecstatic, meteoric, perhaps self-destructive matches. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is — surprise! — Cristina’s opposite.

Rational, cautious, studious — she can’t wait to hit the library card catalogues when she and Cristina travel to Barcelona. Her Philosophy of Love? Well, she’s all set to marry a stockbroker (what do you want to bet he’s a vulgarian?) and settle into bourgeois insignificance.

Wait a minute, though: doesn’t happiness lie somewhere between those extremes? It would seem that two girls are about to learn a lesson. Cue the pseudo-profound platitudes and the bogus irony!

Now that Allen has moved operations from London to Barcelona, he has a whole new culture to be dilettantish about, and new names like Miró and Gaudí to drop. But the location also affords gifted local cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Sea Inside) the chance to work with lots of sun-drenched scenery and an impassioned flamenco guitarist and, most important, Spanish actors Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz. Their appearance on screen reminded me that this was a movie and not a talking-book version of one of Allen’s duller New Yorker pieces.

Although the characters Bardem and Cruz play — hot-blooded, hunky Catalonian painter Juan Antonio and his hot-blooded, sexy Catalonian painter wife, Maria Elena — might just as well be named “Live for the Moment” and “Artistic Inspiration,” they restore life and inspiration to the film. Their performances transcend cliché and create the spontaneity, complexity, and pathos that are sometimes associated with actual human beings. More important, and this is something unusual of late for a Woody Allen movie, they’re funny.

So it’s kind of sad when Juan Antonio hits on Vicky and Cristina. It’s only a matter of time before one of the girls becomes part of a ménage-à-trois and kisses Maria Elena in the darkroom (the talk shows just can’t get enough of Cruz spinning that story!) and discovers that she too is an Artist. To be fair, one of Juan Antonio’s attempted seductions does lead to one of the funnier lines of the movie: wined and dined and talked to for a whole afternoon by Juan Antonio, the girl says, “If you don’t take off my clothes soon, this will turn into a panel discussion.” If only Vicky Cristina Barcelona were that scintillating.

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