The pain in Spain
Woody Allen is the most successful writer-director in the history of movies; his only rival is Billy Wilder. Between 1942 and 1981, Wilder co-wrote and directed 26 features; in the same amount of time (since 1969), Allen has turned out 39, and he’s not finished yet. And while Wilder has six Oscars to Allen’s three, the two are tied for nominations at 21. No doubt about it, Woody Allen is one of the all-time master filmmakers.
But even Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times, and Shakespeare still wrote Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Woody Allen has turned out his share of duds, too. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is one of his dudliest.
The city of Barcelona plays itself; the other title roles are taken by Rebecca Hall (Vicky) and Scarlett Johansson (Cristina). Vicky and Cristina are two young American women on a summer holiday in Spain when they encounter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) in a hotel bar. He invites the two young women to join him in Oviedo for a weekend of uninhibited sex.
The offer crystalizes the difference between the two friends. Vicky is the staid, settled, I-know-where-I’m-going type, engaged to Doug back in New York (Chris Messina). Doug is either a stockbroker or an investment banker (I don’t remember which, and it doesn’t really matter), and to Vicky he represents the secure house-in-Westchester life she knows she wants. What she doesn’t want is an irresponsible fling with a Spanish stranger with artistic pretensions. Cristina, on the other hand, is impulsive, free-spirited, still looking for whatever she really wants. Vicky is adamant, Cristina wheedling, and next thing we know, they’re off to Oviedo with Juan Antonio.
Vicky is just along for the ride, almost a chaperone; it’s Cristina who’s bent on taking up Juan Antonio’s lubricious offer. But when Cristina’s ulcer flares up and confines her to bed, Vicky and Juan Antonio are left to their own devices for the evening. One thing leads to another, and …
Back in Barcelona, Cristina’s ulcer clears up and she and Juan Antonio pick up where they left off. Meanwhile, Doug misses Vicky so much that he flies over from New York to be with her, while she gnashes her teeth over what Cristina and Juan Antonio are up to. As if all that weren’t enough, Juan Antonio’s unstable ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) comes staggering back into his life just as Cristina has moved in with him.
The most striking feature of this procession of shifting triangles (Vicky/Cristina/Juan Antonio, Vicky/Juan Antonio/Doug, Cristina/Juan Antonio/Maria Elena) is its bland dullness. I can’t remember when I’ve seen a Woody Allen movie with so many completely uninteresting characters.
As usual, Allen’s reputation has enabled him to attract a number of good actors (Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn are also along as Vicky and Cristina’s expatriate hosts), but he gives them almost nothing to do. In Allen’s best movies, even the smallest roles left a vivid impression—the substitute teacher in Radio Days, say, or the jerk spouting nonsense about Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, even the largest roles leave none.
Instead, Allen and his actors stroll about Barcelona gawking at the sights and architect Antoni Gaudi’s famous buildings (beautifully photographed by Javier Aguirresarobe). While Woody Allen goes all touristy on us, swooning over the art and architecture of Barcelona, the exposition, character development and insight that a good screenplay has (and Allen has written enough of them that he should know) are left to an omniscient narration (read with crisp impersonality by one Christopher Evan Welch) yapping away on the soundtrack like a bar-stool psychologist who won’t shut the hell up (that pseudo-McLuhan kibitzer from Annie Hall, finally taking over a Woody Allen movie). Constantly telling what it should show, the narration makes Vicky Cristina Barcelona feel less like a movie than an illustrated audiobook.
On the plus side, if you can’t afford a trip to Barcelona, Allen’s movie makes a passable travelogue. Just understand that you’ll be viewing the Casa Milà and Sagrada Familia with some pretty boring company.