BY IMRAN SYED
Daily Arts Writer
Published August 18, 2008
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
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3 out of 5 stars
Nobody gets what they want in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” but somehow that’s OK. The film benefits from several intuitive performances and Allen’s fading, yet still considerable ability to speak emotion in the unlikeliest of scenarios. If the movie ultimately feels incomplete, it’s completely intentional. Somewhat muddled and distracted though it may be, the film’s grim, realistic message of settling and accepting shines through in a manner most of us can appreciate.
The latest (and apparently last) in Allen’s recent works about American expatriates, “Vicky Cristina” is filmed with touristic wonder in northern Spain. It centers on Vicky (Rebecca Hall, “The Prestige”) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson, “The Nanny Diaries”), two young Americans spending a summer in Barcelona. There, they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, “No Country for Old Men”), a local artist with a carefree view on life, love and everything involved therein.
After each girl becomes individually and constrictively involved with Juan Antonio, his deranged ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz, “Volver”) arrives to further complicate matters. The intricate, though often wandering, narrative that follows speaks to the sacrifices each character must make to come closer to his/her overall conception of happiness. The interesting message that concludes the film comes after many detours and may thus be lost on some viewers, an unfortunate turn that may dampen the overall perception of the film.
While Allen’s recent work has been criticized for lacking depth and his once original touch (his last film, “Cassandra’s Dream,” was only shown in 100 theaters nationwide), we must concede that much of it treads on new ground. More than simply set outside of Allen’s usual location, New York City, many of these works also explore themes and attitudes that his earlier work did not. That’s not to say that these films are always good, but how many 72-year-old directors are attempting to broaden their horizons?
Other than an annoyingly expository narrator, “Vicky Cristina” also features some very significant acting, especially from native Spaniards Bardem and Cruz. Bardem is effortless as always, but still not able to completely overcome the slight aura of superficiality in the character he plays. On the other hand, Cruz’s equally fine acting benefits from a wonderfully raw character — one who embodies all of the many (often conflicting) whims of the film itself. Seeing Cruz in a Spanish-speaking role is, of course, a stark contrast from her often wooden, two-dimensional work in her few English films. Here she is fiery, yet completely in control, and the unlikely key to the all-important lesson each character must learn.
As Allen moves back to filming his trademark comedies in New York City, we should appreciate the works his brief career detour has produced. While not as polished as “Match Point” or as funny as “Scoop,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a fitting, bittersweet ending.