Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 16, 2009)
After a bit of a comeback with 2005’s Match Point, Woody Allen went right back into his form of art house obscurity. Sure, Point made only $23 million, but that’s a good figure for Allen’s work, and it sure looks better than the $10 million of 2006’s Scoop and the pathetic sub-$1 million take of 2007’s Cassandra’s Dream.
Allen mustered another semi-comeback with 2008’s well-received Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Like Match Point, it took in about $23 million, and it also earned good critical attention. It also continues Allen’s string of flicks set far from his usual Manhattan stomping grounds. As implied by the title, this one takes us to Spain, where pals Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) visit.
Why are they there? Vicky plans to complete a Masters degree, while Cristina is coming off a bad break-up and needs a change. Both view love in different ways. Vicky is the practical one and values nothing more than stability, while Cristina will accept pain as long as she can get real spark and passion.
At a gallery exhibition, they encounter artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), an apparently volatile man whose marriage to Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) ended due to violence. Later at a restaurant, Juan Antonio invites them to go away with him for the weekend. Vicky dismisses this concept, but the impulsive Cristina thinks they should go. Vicky resists but eventually goes along, partially to protect Cristina.
Initially matters go as expected. Juan Antonio woos Cristina, and they nearly culminate their lust, but Cristina’s ulcer acts up, so that puts the kibosh on romance. While Cristina remains in bed to recover, Juan Antonio and Vicky spend time together. Vicky discovers there’s more to the artist than she initially believed, and she starts to fall for him. Eventually the pair wind up making mad, passionate love.
Of course, they don’t tell Cristina about this, and when they all get back to Barcelona, she and Juan Antonio become a couple. Though haunted by the passion she felt with Juan Antonio, Vicky tries to move on with her life and she marries her fiancé Doug (Chris Messina). This doesn’t nip her feelings in the bud, however, and the film follows the love triangle.
Or quadrangle, since Doug is in the mix. Oh, let’s make it a pentangle, as Maria Elena comes into affairs as well. That’s a lot of romantic tangles for one movie, and Barcelona doesn’t handle them particularly well, partially because we just don’t care.
You can take Woody out of Manhattan, but you can’t take the Manhattan out of Woody. That fact becomes abundantly clear in Barcelona, as it comes populated with the usual crop of pretentious artistes abundant in most Allen flicks. I know they say to write what you know, and it’s clear that Allen lives in circles occupied by folks similar to those portrayed here – though probably considerably older than the twenty-and-thirty-somethings on display.
Still, Allen has explored the same artistic circles an awful lot over the last few decades, and he has nothing new to say, at least not in character-driven projects like Barcelona. It’s not a coincidence that his flicks seem considerably more interesting when they focus more heavily on stories. Sure, Match Point dealt with the well-to-do, but it boasted a strong plot and didn’t meander with its artsy fantasies.
That’s why Barcelona becomes such a dud. It doesn’t remotely bother with story; for better or for worse, it simply involves us in the lives of its characters. And it’s usually “for worse”, as the film’s self-absorbed participants offer little charm or insight.
Again, we’ve seen people like this throughout Allen’s films. He makes clear the contempt he feels for anyone who doesn’t embrace the bohemian artistic lifestyle, though of course, his heroes are well-off enough to follow their muses and not worry about money. There’s no indication Allen recognizes the hypocrisy inherent in these scenarios, so we’re stuck with self-absorbed characters who happily judge others less liberal and free-spirited than they.
This means plenty of groan-inducing dialogue and characters. For instance, we meet Juan Antonio’s father, a poet who refuses to publish his work. Why? He doesn’t think people deserve to witness his greatness because “after thousands of years of civilization, they still haven’t learned to love”. If you can hold down your lunch in the face of idiocy like that, I commend you.
Barcelona isn’t a total loss. Bardem proves surprisingly charming as Juan Antonio, and he may be the only participant who creates a character that rises above the level of cliché. He gets a poor introduction as the artistic lothario, but Bardem manages to produce some real depth in the role. We can certainly see why women swoon over him, but he allows Juan Antonio to become something more than just a stereotypical artist.
Plus we also get to see Cruz and Johansson kiss! In terms of strengths, that’s about all I can find in Barcelona. The movie wants to provide insights about people and life, but instead it simply meanders about without much purpose. It quickly grows tedious and often annoys much more than it entertains.