Sunday, February 01, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Grade B

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson. Writer-Director Woody Allen.

This is classic Woody Allen. When the four main characters are walking and talking on a Barcelona street and one objects to another’s “facile categorical imperative,” it could have been Annie Hall or Manhattan. Woody Allen is an acquired taste, but I have acquired.

Single girls Hall and Johansson (Vicky and Cristina) vacation in Spain for a couple of summer months at the home of a friend (Clarkson). They are picked up in a bar by a handsome stranger (Bardem). Vicky is offended by his proposition to go away for the weekend, but Cristina is game. They both end up going but only one of them succumbs. A narration moves the story along in great leaps until we find Cristina living with the man, who is an abstract painter. (He paints only in orange and brown tones to keep with the pallette of the movie). Vicky’s fiancĂ© joins her from New York. But then the painter’s crazy ex-wife returns (Cruz) and all the relationships take new directions.

As in other Woody Allen movies of this genre, it is an illumination of the human condition, in this case, why love is so hard to find and hard to keep. Vicki has opted for the Manhattan businessman and looks forward to a suburban house with Persian carpets, while Cristina rejects conformity and searches for, as she says, “something more.” But as ever, the heart has its reasons that reason does not know.

The characters are not well-developed people, just placeholders for Allen’s storytelling. Hall even has to do the stuttering Woody Allen shtick through most of the film, which is either Allen being egocentric or reveals a dearth of character ideas. Also true to form, all the characters are immensely wealthy, well-educated and idle, all neurotic about relationships. What holds the movie together are the beautiful faces, beautiful scenery and photography, excellent lighting, directing, editing and music. It is perfection in the craft of movie-making, even though it has no point and even though the characters are only two dimensional. Woody Allen is so good he doesn’t need no stinking plot or characters!

Rebecca Hall, does a wonderful acting job but it's odd that she looks so much like Scarlett. However, Hall can take a close camera full in the face. Scarlett never looks comfortable when the camera is stealing her soul. Hall can stare right into its evil eye. Bardem gave a wonderfully sensitive performance, especially compared to No Place for Old Men, but Cruz is the one who pops off the screen. Even disheveled and with no makeup, and speaking only Spanish or Catalan, she is riveting, for reasons I cannot fathom. Patricia Clarkson proves again what an underrated actor she is. So everything about this movie is excellent except there is no plot and no characters and the story is lame. Only Woody Allen can pull that off.

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