Intuitive and Smoldering
With Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen again eschews the typical Hollywood method of exploring relationships though formulaic situations and instead examines them though the mindset of the characters. This provides for a much richer and more fulfilling insight into the complexities, hardships (and later), rewards of loving relationships. It's a more difficult way of telling a story, as it involves intuitive writing, brilliant direction, and flawless acting, but that's why Woody Allen is who he is and Hollywood is what it has become... two equally successful movie-making entities, but one that never takes the easy way to do it.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona comes across as much a colorful portrait of one of the sexiest cities in Europe as it is a romantic comedy about two young American women at two completely different stages in their lives. The poetically picturesque city of Barcelona, with its intricate architecture and postcard-ready beauty, becomes one of the strongest characters in the film, imbuing its will on the story to help define and direct the proceedings. Set the film in Los Angeles, Chicago or even London and the film would have a completely different vibe. Nothing would work.
There's really very little by way of plot in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. We're merely onlookers into the lives of two girls, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) who spend a summer at the residence of a wealthy distant relative in Barcelona. Vicky has a plan ahead of her. She's studying for her master's thesis, she'll be marrying at the end of the summer, and everything is falling into place according to her grand plan. She expects what most expect, a more structured, stable and well-functioning life… the American dream. Cristina, on the other hand, is the counter of Vicky... a free spirit. She has relationship troubles; she's not sure what she wants to do and is otherwise just floating through life purposeless and desultory. But interestingly, the two "complete" each other.
The conflict comes when artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) offers to fly them to a weekend getaway of food, wine and wanton sex in Oviedo, a beautiful coastal city in northern Spain. Naturally, Cristina is intrigued by the proposition, Vicky outright appalled. Eventually, the two agree to accompany the suave Spaniard even knowing full well what he wants. Cristina is intrigued by his no B.S. approach; Vicky goes along to guard her careless friend. Once in Oviedo, things begin to go awry when Cristina gets food poisoning which forces a reluctant Vicky to spend time alone with Juan Antonio. But Vicky quickly learns that he is not how she had imagined him at all. She's soon smitten by his charm, and makes love to him, but they must hide their affair from Cristina as she eventually falls into a relationship with him.
As if things weren't already sticky enough, Juan Antonio's ex, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), a fireplug of a character, attempts suicide and ends up coming to live with Juan Antonio and Cristina in his studio dwelling. Cristina learns of Maria Elena's jealousy when Juan Antonio informs her that his ex-wife once stabbed him during a heated argument. But soon enough it becomes clear that with Cristina in the picture, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena's relationship can flourish. In some strange and kinky way that only Woody Allen could convince us of, Cristina completes Juan Antonio and Maria Elena's relationship. Now with Cristina out of the picture, things travel right back down that humorously violent path.
Allen pulls off a casting coup of sorts with his choices of Cruz, Johansson, Bardem and the relatively fresh Hall (last seen in The Prestige). As with most character dramas, the tangled weave of relationships is vital to the success of the film, and a weak link can ruin the whole pot of broth. The two standouts here are Cruz and Hall. Hall's Vicky is the most complex of the characters, and Hall takes us through her arc like a seasoned veteran way beyond her experience. Cruz has displayed her versatility before -- especially in Volver - and here her fiery Spanish insensibility works perfectly as the catalyst. And who would have thought Bardem had so much scorching affection beneath that Prince Valiant coif he sported in last year's No Country for Old Men?
Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona represents one of his most finely crafted films. He's never been one to walk away from the complexity of human relationships, but he has, on occasion, shied from blatant displays of carnal pleasures. Here he visits both, and subsequently Vicky Cristina smolders with the best of them.
(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated “PG-13” for mature thematic material involving sexuality, and smoking.)