Woody Allen’s latest film amuses, but no return to greatness

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The title of Woody Allen’s latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, sounds like the name of a character — but actually lists three, only two of whom are people.

In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, two young American women spend a summer of romantic, sexual adventure in the art-filled city of Barcelona, Spain.

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Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and Vicky (Rebecca Hall) are visiting Barcelona for the summer, staying with Vicky’s ex-pat American relative, Judy Nash (Patricia Clarkson) and her husband Mark (Kevin Dunn). Vicky and Cristina are close friends who share many similar views but they are very different people.

Down-to-earth, practical and serious-minded Vicky is engaged to Doug (Chris Messina), whose job kept him from joining her on the trip. Her friend Cristina is drifting through life, still unsure what she wants to do after college. Unlike steady Vicky, Cristina is an impulsive person, with a taste for sexual adventure.

After a chance meeting at an art gallery, both women become entangled with a seductive, charismatic painter named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). The Spanish artist is recently divorced from his unstable, fiery, abusive artist wife Maria-Elena (Penelope Cruz), who tried to kill him with a knife.

Despite their violent history, Juan Antonio is still entangled with his ex-wife. Flirtations, shifting sexual liaisons and romantic chaos ensue.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is more amusing rather than the sexy romp its plot summary might suggest. There is more talk about sexual trysts than steamy scenes, but everything happens with an ironic tone and a dry wit that lifts it above bedroom farce.

While Barcelona is visually stunning, the characters live in a kind of surreal bubble, oddly isolated from any real-world concern, a kind of frozen fantasy world of 1970s New York but without the real character of the city.

The romantic city of Barcelona is as much a character as Vicky and Cristina in director/writer Woody Allen’s latest film.

The photography is very nice and the use of Barcelona’s wonderful modern art architectural gems, particularly the work of Antonio Gaudi, is superb. The soaring spires, the melting gargoyle shapes, cave formation-like pillars and weirdly undulating roofs of Gaudi’s buildings evokes both modern art and organic forms, far ahead of its 19th century contemporaries. There are beautiful shots of the lush glory of this wonderful city as the characters stroll through archways, chat on rooftops, or drive along curving roads with lovely vistas.

The music is Spanish-flavored, modern and jazz-influenced. In fact, the views of Barcelona and the delightful sound track are perhaps the most enjoyable parts of the film.

While it is funny and entertaining enough, Vicky Cristina Barcelona in no way marks a return to great filmmaking on the part of Allen, and the story, in the end, leaves one shrugging. The film features a running voiceover which wears thin over time, and the resolution leaves its too-comfortable people only a little uncomfortable.

As in earlier Woody Allen films, the characters chat about their analysts, visit art galleries, discuss culture and gossip in a sophisticated way, as if Allen simply transported a New York story to a new location. There is little real substance and any commentary on the human heart or human condition at which the story occasionally hints is largely missing.

Given the quality of the cast, it is little surprise that the acting is better than the lightweight film itself.

The great Spanish actor Javier Bardem shines as the artist, assertive and seductive but more tenderhearted and caring than he at first seems. Rebecca Hall as Vicky easily outshines Scarlett Johansson in her role as Cristina.

Johansson’s performance seems rather wooden, despite the wild nature of her character. Patricia Clarkson is effective as the sincere if misguided Judy, trying to save Vicky from repeating her own mistakes. Not surprisingly, Penelope Cruz steals every scene as the crazy Maria-Elena, and the scenes between her and fellow Spaniard Bardem are among the best of the film.

One of the signature aspects of Woody Allen’s films used to be their New Yorker and Jewish flavor. While the dialogue and the characters of Vicky Cristina Barcelona seems lifted directly out of one of Allen’s earlier Manhattan-set movies, specifically Manhattan, the Spanish-set story has been stripped of the kind of Jewish and New York references that added to the earlier films’ unique charm.

The long-familiar Jewish/ New Yorker flavor is missing, in a way that leaves a gap, like an ingredient left out of a soup.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a mildly amusing but dryly witty, sophisticated romantic comedy, better than some of his recent films but not quite a return to his great filmmaking past.

While it is better than the recent Cassandra’s Dream, and offerings like the awkward detective tale Scoop and flat comedy Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, Vicky Cristina Barcelona does not reach the level of his best recent films, Match Point and Sweet and Lowdown.

The legendary director, who seems to be floundering, might want to reconsider revisiting his New York roots. This film is worth a look for the serious Woody Allen fan but it is like light beach reading, amusing if you do not expect too much.

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