August 21, 2008


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Vicky Cristina Barcelona (PG-13)
Woody Allen has characters self-consciously pontificate on the nature of romance (how unlike him) in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, or, as it’s known to many a guy, That Movie Where Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson Kiss.

And let’s get this out of the way up front, if that’s the only reason you want to see this movie, I recommend seeking out still shots and bootlegs from that scene online because it’s brief and it’s not going to make up for all the scenes you’ll have to sit through where Johansson and Cruz aren’t kissing.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) are American girls in their young-ish 20s who have come to Barcelona to spend the summer. They’re staying with a relative of Vicky’s, and Vicky is using the trip to research her master’s thesis on Catalan culture. Cristina is using the trip to look sultry and drink wine. Both girls are in sort of a holding pattern for the summer — Cristina is between life purposes and Vicky is scheduled to marry finance guy Doug (Christ Messina) in the fall.

One night, while out drinking wine and ruminating over their two different approaches to romance (Vicky’s repressed and Cristina’s kind of slutty — the movie is more nuanced in its explanation of this but basically there it is), the girls meet artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). He has a sexy accent and a tragic romantic past (his wife tried to kill him when they were separating) and so naturally he is catnip to Cristina. When he suggests to the girls that they accompany him to a small town for the weekend where they will sight-see, drink wine and make love, Vicky sputteringly Woody Allens about the inappropriateness of his offer while Cristina flutters her eyelashes and accepts. Vicky tags along to save Cristina from herself and to do more of that Catalan research she’s so fond of. Naturally, Juan Antonio goes for Cristina but when, mid-seduction, she’s felled by food poisoning, he ends up spending time with Vicky.

Once the gals return, Vicky’s all bewitched by Juan Antonio but it’s Cristina that he takes up with. They date, she moves into his house and just as she’s settling in to the life of an artist’s girlfriend (it is a difficult job that includes looking pretty and hanging out in a beautiful Spanish villa-type house), Maria Elena (Cruz), Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, shows up, all dramatic hand gestures and smoky eyes.

My aggravation really swirls with my amusement when it comes to this movie. Aggravating — Johansson’s third or fourth pass at playing this same wishy-washy over-ripe character. It is not a role that is improving with time. Amusing — Penelope Cruz, who is an infinitely better actress in Spanish (she delivers her most biting lines here in Spanish) than she is in English. She is delightfully crazy and she and Bardem are the most interesting parts of the movie. Perhaps because they’re attractive but perhaps also because they are adults and more than just doe-ish caricatures, they held my attention much more than the film’s other characters. When they aren’t around, when it is just left to Vicky or Cristina to ponder and dissect their lives, the movie loses its vibrancy and energy.

Aggravating — the narrator, who leaves nothing to suggestion and, like an omniscient voice in a high school novel, spells out everyone’s thoughts and feelings. It is occasionally dryly humorous but more occasionally grating. Amusing — about half the dialogue. Juan Antonio and Maria Elena get the best lines but Cristina and Vicky occasionally get something funny to say. That is — aggravating — when they aren’t playing out the characteristics of the two allowable Woody Allen female types.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is one of the better films in the list of the 15 or so films that make up the late-era Woody Allen (Mighty Aphrodite and after). But when you consider that that list includes true torture devices like Melinda and Melinda and Anything Else, “better” isn’t exactly a screaming endorsement. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is mannered and far too self-conscious (and you can add to that self-indulgent and self-important) but it also has a fun flamenco guitar soundtrack and a cute male lead. So, when you go to rent the movie for a romantic night with your sweetie, there will be a little something for everyone but you won’t feel bad about falling asleep halfway through it. C+

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexuality and smoking. Written and directed by Woody Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an hour and 36 minutes and is distributed in limited release by The Weinstein Company.