Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review of Vicky Cristina Barcelona

So, Scarlett Johansson got married over the weekend to Ryan Reynolds. No!!!! Hey, do you know she's also an actress, and a pretty good one. The following review appeared in the September issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina)

Throbbing with energy, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the movie that should launch Woody Allen back into relevance after 10 years of making inferior movies from his legendary ones. Example: Crimes and Misdemeanors - laughs + attractive cast + turgid pace = Match Point. Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels like the legendary writer/director has been revived, that he's finally become tired of remixing his greatest hits. Thank God.

Arriving in Barcelona for a two-month summer stay, twentysomething friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) have different agendas. Vicky is working on a graduate degree in some nonsense Spanish-influenced subject. Practical and organized, she's biding her time studying until she marries the bland and successful Doug (Chris Messina). Sexy and free-spirited, Cristina has no real plan except to enjoy the free accommodations from Vicky's friends (Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn).

The girls' plans change when they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a sexy and tortured painter, who invites the two for a weekend of sightseeing and lovemaking in Oviedo. "This is the chance for something special," is his sales pitch. Cristina is hooked while Vicky is repulsed. But concerned for her friend's safety, Vicky makes the trip as well. Cristina is on the verge of passionate lovemaking with Juan Antonio ("I'll go to your room," she says, "but you have to seduce me.") when she becomes ill, allowing Vicky and the amorous painter to spend the next day together.

As day turns into night, Vicky's pragmatism fades, and she sleeps with Juan Antonio, the first of many chaotic events. Cristina moves in with Juan Antonio, while Vicky still pines for him, her feelings becoming stronger as marriage-minded Doug arrives in Barcelona in all his khaki and tucked shirt boredom. Cristina, meanwhile, flourishes with Juan Antonio and his bohemian lifestyle, until the arrival of his creative, sultry, and suicidal ex-wife, Maria Elena (a hilariously unhinged Penélope Cruz), changes everything.

The big difference with Vicky Cristina Barcelona compared to Allen's other films, aside from the international cast, is its sensuality. The four main characters are guided, for better or for worse, by sex. Vicky's tryst with Juan Antonio shakes her worldview, while Cristina uses lovemaking as a way of maturity and self-discovery. For Juan Antonio, he oozes sexual confidence out of his pores, while Maria Elena uses it as a weapon over her ex-husband and his current paramour. The acting here is so ripe and vibrant, especially from Cruz and Bardem, that it never feels like Allen is commenting on the limits of sexual desire. The characters come to those realizations themselves. The philosophy-rich ways of Annie Hall and Manhattan never surface. And with Johansson--after two prior films, finally being used to her full smoky, charismatic potential by Allen--and Cruz around, who needs philosophy?

Allen can no longer effectively portray the everyday neuroses of relationships, or offer his interpretation of how those crazy kids do it. (His head might explode if he toured the dating web sites or talked to a single, sexually active 25-year-old.) Vicky Cristina Barcelona shows that he can have fun while imparting bigger lessons than how to date someone from the Lower East Side. Being young and impetuous in a sexy, foreign city can be fun, but it can also expose you to a lot of hard truths. When Vicky and Cristina return to New York, they have life experience, but not the kind they envisioned. It's a poetic finale in a terrific movie that introduces Allen in a new role to a younger generation of moviegoers: the sage grandfather of American cinema. Let's hope he doesn't feel the need to rehash the good old days.

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