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Lovely Americans:
Woody Allenís Vicky Cristina Barcelona

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Weinstein Co.)

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Friday, August 22, 2008


Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Directed by Woody Allen
(Weinstein Co.)

Reviewed by José Teodoro

Two American girls arrive in Barcelona, old friends who share more history than sensibility. Their differences are emphasized in the camerawork, the screen divided in two to better isolate each of them in the frame — even though they’re sharing the backseat of a cab. They’re in their 20s and, apparently, have some considerable disposable income. They’re very attractive, witty and they can talk. One’s still searching for life’s true starting point; the other’s enjoying the streaming rush of watching her carefully weighed plans rapidly fall into place.

No matter, antiquity’s mythical romance between bright-eyed Yanks and earthy Europeans has never been all that discriminate. Good wine and rich food, flamboyant architecture and passionate music, loose morals and hot sex: their allure transcends the flimsy frontiers of bourgeois ideology. And anyway this is a movie, a willful artifice, and, as photographed by Javier Aguirresarobe, an intoxicatingly gorgeous one, full of gold, deep red and caramel orange surfaces burnt by the sun.

It isn’t long before Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) draw the attention of some lusty Spaniard, though neither expected he’d be propositioning both at once, shuffling sexily toward them in a crimson shirt, an older man with reassuringly weary eyes and a startling frankness to his proposal that’s only slightly betrayed by his keeping his hands in his pockets the whole time. Surely it helps that Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) is a painter, not to mention a pilot with moment’s notice access to a plane and an immaculate-looking sports car. (What sort of painter is this guy?) He takes the ladies for a little sojourn to some charming village, hoping to bag at least one, but which? The result is predictably unpredictable, but how it finds its way there is surprisingly delicious, culminating in a series of heady dissolves that, again, divvy up images of faces already in close proximity. If you’re not along for the ride by this point, it might not be too late to get your money back at the box office, but why resist such a seductive offering?

Antipathies toward Woody Allen reign so supreme in certain circles these days that anyone openly claiming to find merit in one of the offensively prolific auteur’s films, especially recent ones, almost feels the need to duck for fear of projectiles being instantly hurled in their direction. But self-censorship is itself an offense when it suppresses a viewer’s pleasure, and the pleasures to be had in Vicky Cristina Barcelona — middle-brow, old-timey, modest pleasures through they may be — are plentiful.

Yet perhaps the tide’s turning as Allen keeps chugging into his 70s: several smarter critics have become notably less hostile, some even grudgingly friendly, and the movie cracked the top ten at the box office on its opening weekend. Have we grown soft, tired of beating up an old man who just wants to keep busy, play a little jazz now and then, shamelessly smooch a starlet here and there, and consistently keeps his movies on the cheap?

I’d argue that Allen has fully earned this semi-comeback (the sharply divisive Match Point notwithstanding), by simultaneously sticking to his guns and loosening up. With its fiery Mediterraneans and hysterical — but also smart, powerful, sexy and saucily arrogant — women (enter a terrific and terrifying Penélope Cruz as Juan Antonio’s homicidal genius ex), with its super-square, uptight and oppressively loving American husbands, Vicky Cristina Barcelona dabbles openly in cliché. And its soaking up of Spanish culture is kept safely within the realms of the tourist’s gaze; the annoying, entirely superfluous narrator (Christopher Evan Welsh) can’t even pronounce Gaudí or Miró properly.

At worst, the film trades in corny conceits, like Juan Antonio’s father, a poet who never published his work because, supposedly, any world that doesn’t know how to love doesn’t deserve such beauty. But at best, and far more frequently, Vicky Cristina Barcelona captures the fleetingness of youth and looming compromises of adulthood in a way that’s rather close to heartbreaking. And it luxuriates in earthly delights with a laid-back tone that pleasingly echoes Eric Rohmer far more than the usual list of great filmmakers from whom Allen is accused of ripping off. (Can you even rip off a tone?)

It should probably also be mentioned that Vicky Cristina Barcelona is funny. Perhaps not funny like Woody’s old days — nor forced like some more recent outings — but funny enough to keep this potentially too wistful story perfectly buoyant. It is finally this very buoyancy, crafted through nuance and gracefully counteracting the irresolvable emotional residue of our heroines’ journeys, that demands to be measured against whatever fumbling pretensions might be held up as nitpicker’s evidence that Allen really is an ostensibly over-rated schmuck.

Taken for what it is, the film reveals that even jaded old curmudgeons can endeavor to cultivate delight and let it glide along its own path for a while. Unlike the vast majority of summertime comedies, the delights of Vicky Cristina Barcelona won’t evaporate any time soon.

 

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