By Tia Mansouri
When I heard Woody Allen’s new movie would be titled Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I was a little worried. But with titles such as A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and Bananas I figured hey, Whatever Works (which, is, incidentally, the title of his next movie). At least he’s being clear on what the movie is about, two girls, one city. That was all I wanted to know, besides the fact that the actor who played the crazy killer with the god-awful bowl haircut from No Country For Old Men would be the love interest.
Allen, along with Martin Scorsese and Sophia Coppola, is an auteur, whether he admits it or not. He makes great movies, but given his habit of releasing a new movie every year, it’s impossible to put out an Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters every time. Allen has certain staples to his movies: stunning city backdrops, a neurotic character based on Allen himself, a snazzy jazz piece or two for the soundtrack, quirky female characters and interesting romantic entanglements. Putting in just the right combination of these ingredients can be hit or miss. Taking out some of these can also make all the difference.
In terms of backdrop, Barcelona and Spain essentially did all the work and spoke for itself. It was stunning. I drooled. Sweeping camera angles and backdrops that were a combination of earthy clay buildings and thriving, lush gardens were enough to make the movie romantic without any sort of chemistry between characters. While the opening music was catchy and exciting the first time, the same song kept repeating so often that it felt excessive. Allen has chosen better tracks, but the landscape took enough of my sensory efforts that I didn’t notice.
Vicky Cristina lacked the neurotic New York Jew character, and I liked it that way. We can only see the Woody Allen character appear so many times. Instead, certain archetypical qualities were given to the two main characters: the indecisive and impulsive Cristina and the insecure, fearful Vicky. In Rebecca Hall’s portrayal of Vicky I saw the kind of female protagonist I haven’t seen in Allen’s films since the 80’s, the kind who is introspective to the degree that you can really read it on her face and body language. The kind you know is really thinking about her choices and her lifestyle; who allows other characters to shake her ideals and lets the audience know it by showing rather than telling. Hall nailed this character, with a great American accent, too (she’s British). Scarlett Johansson is a slightly different story. Her character was atypical, so it’s hard for me to put a finger on how I felt about her performance. In terms of how Allen wrote her part in the script, the emphasis was on how she was never happy and only “knew what she didn’t want rather than what she did want,” as the film’s unnecessary narrator was keen to point out. In the end, she leaves the relationships she formed in Barcelona because of her intrinsic drive to never be sated, so while I may have had problems in Johansson’s delivery, Allen still wrote a conclusion to the character that remained true to the way she began.
The characters of Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) rounded out the main characters with strong, intense portrayals of two passionate artists. Bardem exuded a sexyness that was enough to catch the attention of most females watching the film in his 20-year age radius. When he asks Vicky and Cristina for a threesome, as an audience member, one finds the idea is as ridiculous as Vicky proclaims it to be. But as Bardem weaves his wicked web of charm and romance, it seems more and more of a viable, believable option. Penelope Cruz simply steals the show. She is an insane, suicidal, violent woman and plays the part with prodigious fervor. When Scarlett Johansson’s character sees her for the first time, she is visibly scared, and she should be. Cruz looks like she could eat her.
Perhaps because they are together in real life, Bardem and Cruz work out Allen’s idea that sometimes love is so strong “because it could never work.” The characters all experience a tumultuous, fiery summer romance; while at the conclusion of the movie Bardem and Cruz’s characters retreat into the on-again-off-again romance that they embodied so well. Hall and Johansson’s characters got a chance to experience what each was missing: for Hall, risky and unpredictable passion, and for Johansson, the experience of settling down and finding out more about herself. This summer voyage was an energizing blend of comedy, drama, and solidly constructed characters.