WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is easily the best Woody Allen movie I have seen in a long time. There is no shaky camera work to induce nausea here, and the story is never boring for one second. There is also none of those Woody Allen-isms we are all so tired of, probably because Allen himself chose not to act in this movie. Instead, he gives us a great cast of actors to bring his material to life, and he sets his story in the beautiful country of Spain. With cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, he makes the different areas of Spain so inviting to where you just want to jump on a plane and fly over there right now. If only plane tickets weren’t so damn expensive. Oh yeah, I have a job too. Damn!
The movie starts off by introducing us to Vicky (Rebecca Hall), a graduate student who is engaged to be married, and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), a woman who just filmed a short feature and recently broke up with her boyfriend. They are best friends who take a vacation to Spain, and they agree on just about everything except when it comes to love. Whereas Vicky is reserved in the ways of love, Cristina is impulsive and spontaneous. While Vicky seems sure of what she wants, Cristina is unsure of what she wants from a lover or from life. The ways of these two women are put to test when they meet Spanish artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). Juan casually comes up to them while at a restaurant and offers to take the two to Oviedo in the next hour where he says they will have great fun, drink fine wine and eventually make love. Cristina is all for going, but Vicky wants nothing of it due to her impending marriage. But of course, she goes to keep Cristina company. What happens from there will or will not change the way they feel about love in general.
Into this mix comes Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who wishes she knew how to quit her ex-husband. Maria comes back into Juan’s life after Cristina has moved in with him, and she is unstable to say the least. From there, who knows what will happen. This is what I really liked about the “Vicky Cristina Barcelona;” It was very absorbing, and I had no idea what was going to happen next. I can’t say this about most movies I see these days.
Like I said, the cast is superb. I wish I had the power over women Bardem has over the female characters here. This is quite a switch from his Academy Award winning role as Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men,” and this movie affords him a better haircut as well. Bardem succeeds in showing you how passionate his character is, and how unfulfilled his passion is.
Scarlett Johansson, Allen’s muse at the moment judging from the number of movies they have done together so far, is excellent as usual. Johansson plays an adventurous person who throws caution to the wind, but the actress also allows us to see the vulnerable side of Cristina which reveals her to be insecure as she has no idea of what she really wants out of life.
The most underrated performance of this movie, however, belongs to Rebecca Hall, whose dalliance with Juan Antonio creates conflicted feelings within her character which come across so clearly without her saying a word. Hall’s face does a lot of the acting for her while her words betray what Vicky thinks about what her heart truly desires. She has a loving fiancée, but he is nowhere as romantic as Juan. Of course, who would be? One important lesson for prospective husbands to be; make sure your fiancés don’t meet up with any Spanish men because you will never be able to compete with them. This will especially be the case if you are a banker.
But leave it to the Spanish actors to steal this movie away from everyone else. We already talked about how great Bardem is, but let’s talk about the passionate fireball that is Penelope Cruz. For years, she was stuck in American movies which dealt more with her looks more than her talent. Plus, she was constantly being accused of messing up relationships with married movie stars which was unfair to say the least. Ever since abandoning those movies, her talent has shined brightly in acclaimed films like “Volver.” Cruz is an uncontainable force in this movie, and she takes her characters from highs and lows which feel very believable and never overdone. The relationship between her and Bardem in this movie is easily the most complicated and most infuriating for them both. As Juan correctly points out, “We are meant for each other, and we are not meant for each other.”
The theme of the movie is love and what it does to us when we go after it, and of what it does to us after we think we have it. The one thing these characters have in common is the search for true love feels like a never-ending journey for them, and that’s even if you are with the person you love. It’s a beast which seems far more likely to hurt people instead of making them happy. There are a lot of thoughts here on love which makes “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” one of the more thought-provoking movies I have seen so far in 2008. There is a lot of comedy to be found here, but the movie is mostly a sad story of how love seems to be just out of our grasp. Even if you have the love you need in life, there is always something missing.
What I really loved about the comedy here is how none of the actors ever try to play the joke or attempt to be funny. The humor comes out of the absurd way the characters interact with each other. There is a brilliant moment where Maria tells Cristina how she had to go through her suitcase because she didn’t trust Cristina and that she wanted to know more about who is making out with her ex-husband. The scene is played in all seriousness, even when Cruz talks about how she has thoughts of killing Johansson, and it is hysterical.
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a very unusual Woody Allen movie. While it deals with themes which are very familiar to ones he has dealt with in the past, it does not feel like your typical Woody Allen movie. That is a major plus because most of his movies have an overwhelming feeling of familiarity which threatens to take away from the proceedings. But by putting his thematic material in another country with a terrific cast, this is one of those movies which reminds you Allen can still pull off a great movie worth seeing. For once, I am eager to see what he will do next. He’ll probably go through the regular ups and downs, but he has clearly learned some hard lessons from the movies he did back in the 1990’s.