Vicky Cristina Barcelona is that film that falls under the paradoxical heading of being a good, largely well-crafted concoction that is nevertheless remarkably frustrating. It has so much potential, such unquestionable promise, and its standing as a creation by Woody Allen seems to be equal parts blessing and curse, that it can arguably be considered to encapsulate everything you adore and abhor about a certain auteur despite coming away from the experience mostly satisfied. It's that rarest of movies—it's primordially lovable, winning you over while simultaneously disappointing you; most saddening, Vicky Cristina Barcelona illustrates the worst instincts of its creator at the expense of his best instincts. Perhaps more bluntly, it's one of those films that seems to have a film within it that would probably be both different from and most likely better than the final product.
Plainly, the Brechtian narration put me off; eventually I came to loathe it. Allen trudges over the same terrain as he has seemingly since he first lensed a movie. Pretentious pseudo-intellectuals are annoying, aggravating and awfully phony. As agreeable as that assessment may be, at a certain point once you have expounded on it for so long, the argument almost succumbs from reverse identity complex, like the boorish lout who bitterly complains about there being nothing on the wasteland known as television while he numbingly, repetitively flips the channels. Christopher Evan Welch's snidely haughty narration is pure, unmitigated Allen; at this point Allen aficionados know the archetypes and the characterizations so well that the moment they show up there is something of a “here we go again” vibe. Allen's pictures are apparently destined to forever have that je ne sais quoi about them derived from the separate but recurring components that are his signature. Unfortunately, Allen, who could have easily killed off the narration after the first ten minutes, relies on it for the entirety of the picture. It's an entirely unnecessary crutch, and one that will feed certain Allen critics some fresh ammunition: it connotes a certain lack of faith in his visual talents, which have been quite considerable since his early days as a director, and it never contributes anything that Allen's compositions and cuts between scenes did not already. To take a radical but important example, late in the picture Allen comically cuts to a screaming couple in the street, a couple whose temperament has been repeatedly noted to be ill and destructive, their fate together an unhappy one. Rather than allow the hilarious but gently melancholic cut to work its full magic on the audience—comedy at its best and most successful flourishes because it has permitted the viewer to work it out and do the heavy lifting of immediately piecing the joke's resonance within the grander framework of the story—Allen partially squashes his own gorgeous portrait with that overwhelming and irksomely pestilential narration, describing the moment. It's a sorrowful sight, witnessing a filmmaker whose control of the medium seems to be underestimated by no one more than himself.
Early on, Vicky Cristina Barcelona truly does recall the “early funny ones” of Allen's, perhaps most notably Manhattan, with Barcelona barely substituting. Whereas Allen's own, tonally wondrous introduction in that film fit his picture like a glove and established the man's undying love for the city serving as a sparkling black-and-white dream world backdrop for the dramas and comedies of the relationships detailed therein, little love for Barcelona is evident beyond the borderline plebeian American tourist cliché embodied by the two titular vacationing young women. However, despite the shortcomings, a scene in which a suave, straightforwardly sensuous Spanish painter named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, putting a faintly sardonic spin on his tortured artist portrayals in Before Night Falls and The Sea Inside, making you forget he ever carried around a cattle gun in No Country for Old Men) approaches Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) as they listlessly drink wine caresses your face like a gust of Mediterranean wind. Allen seems to have found himself again after trying to meld the Bergman with the Hitchcock with the serious half of Crimes and Misdemeanors in Match Point, making one inconsequential stick of cotton candy (Scoop) and a Picasso “blue period” special (Cassandra's Dream) afterwards.
What is most regrettable, then, is that it's in re-finding himself that Allen ostensibly loses something here. Rebecca Hall is quite terrific as Vicky, the most clearly archetypal role in the Allen gallery, the “stable,” secure young American woman, and Johansson acquits herself as the flaky, “terminally dissatisfied” (to borrow a descriptive term from another character) wanderer--she gives the performance Allen desires from her--but as well-etched (if extraordinarily familiar) figures as they are, it's actually the more exotically unfamiliar creations in Allen's newest that attract the greatest degree of interest. Bardem's Juan is a seducer but with self-imposed limits; he is completely without artifice when he tells the two upon meeting them that he would love to take them to Oviedo for the weekend, enjoying delicious wine, exquisite sculptures and the lustful opportunity to “make love.” He is particularly interested in a possible menage a trois, which repulses Vicky, who is engaged to an American named Doug (Chris Messina). Doug may be gifted by Allen with sensing the certain absurdities of Cristina's personality and very being, but he's a wretchedly shallow creature, motivated to undertake adventures like wedding in Barcelona so he can tell his friends about it so they can be impressed; perhaps he and Vicky can tell their children about it as well, he says.
The first act is peppered with with scenes of affection, molded with vest and wit. Allen at seventy-two is more dangerous than ten Judd Apatows—probably because Allen's relation to humanity is still strong and mainly accurate; a certain early twist involving Vicky, Cristina and Juan should have been seen a mile away but because Allen grounds the decisions made by the trio in the always adumbral roads of the human heart, which as every Allen expert knows, wants what it wants. Gradually, though, the momentum of the picture dies down, and narrative seems to go slack. And that is when Allen unveils Maria Elena, the neurotic ex-wife of Juan's, given whirring, authentic and earthy immediacy by Penelope Cruz.
Cruz's presence as Maria Elena is given an anticipatory treatment similar to Orson Welles's Harry Lime in The Third Man. Characters speak of her, almost reverently, and finally she appears. When we first see her she is deceptively broken, apparently having just attempted to end her life. Allen allows her to be a three-dimensional being. Like Meryl Streep's Jill Davis in Manhattan, another feisty ex-wife to an artist on whom she has left an indelible influence, Cruz's Maria is bossy and probably justifiably a bit crazed. Unlike Jill, however, Maria still passionately loves Juan and he loves her, though they know their relationship is doomed. Described as a paradox by Juan, theirs is a match that is both ideal in the abstract and wholly wrong in practice. Cruz's performance is like a lit fuse attached to the film's stick of dynamite, and it's her turn that summons the most humor and pathos, a realization that hits you the hardest in her final powerful scene.
Though she is his newest regular muse, Allen may have--subconsciously or not--at best mixed feelings about Scarlett Johansson. In Match Point she was a failing actress, incapable of following through with her goals. In Scoop she was something of a female stand-in for him. Vicky Cristina Barcelona finds her embodying an inexpressive, untalented artist who describes herself as lacking in talent. Is Allen making a sly suggestion about Johansson that possibly goes over her head? Is it sexism, a study of sexism or the crass stereotyping of the blonde beauty as a worthless but shiny ornament?
Allen films, perhaps especially his relationship comedies, inevitably travel down such beaten paths by now, that describing their plots is less interesting than discussing some of the subtext. A dining scene involving two couples allows the audience to hear the words spoken by one of the foursome, “There's this joke...” Allen lets music play over the rest. The idea of humor is almost enough by itself now. There are still some one-liners, but they are less stale and transparently Allen prerequisites and more organically birthed from the flow of conversations. Maria's commentary about the Chinese language had the audience roaring with laughter. Allen seems to have found, once again, that people are funny not primarily because of what they say but rather how they say it, who they are saying it to and why, and where all of that comes from.
What to make of Allen pointing to Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt? Allen's “thrillers,” whether comedic (Manhattan Murder Mystery) or straight (Match Point), have owed pieces and perhaps swathes from the master of suspense. Deeper still, is Allen making a comment pertaining to the supremacy of the auteur as, in Bushian terms, “decider,” of the merit of his own work? It became concretely, almost universally believed that Hitchcock reportedly considered the Joseph Cotten-starrer to be his best film, or at least his personal favorite. (This mythically recurrent "fact" would be contradicted in the book written about the master of suspense by Francois Truffaut.) Allen's own idiosyncratic positions on his own work have frustrated and amused fans and followers; his willingness to disregard the claims of critics pining for a return to Annie Hall almost legendary.
Nevertheless, Allen can generally consider Vicky Cristina Barcelona a success, but oddly enough it's most effective when it averts its gaze from the truly joyless American, Allenesque archetypes and finds visceral pleasure in the fireworks set off by the Juan and Maria pairing given life by the voluptuous Spanish Cruz and Bardem. This may indeed be the breakthrough Allen acolytes have been desiring for so long, but it will have to be retroactively labeled as such in the wake of his future, unforeseen canon: the final frontier for Allen, it seems, may not have much to do with the same old snobbish pseudo-intellectuals who so routinely populate his work but rather the beings that seem more like him, the impassioned but tortured artist, whose scales and measures of triumph and failure are more reasonably set to the corresponding standards imposed by his or herself? Bullets Over Broadway was a tautly calibrated statement about the perils of losing that uncompromising, artistic stubbornness. Allen's own life and career point to this, and with this film he seems to be better than halfway home. That may be an incensing reality in some ways, but it's more progress than most make. Allen, I'm sure, isn't satisfied. He shouldn't be—it would go against his nature—but he has more to hang his proverbial hat on to than nearly all of his peers. One can hope next time he allows himself to get out of his own way. He's a treasure, and he should recognize that without embarrassment or modesty, false or otherwise.