Believe everything you've heard: Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Woody Allen's best in years. Great ensemble, beautiful cinematography, a funny and at times bleak script. Brilliant.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is a gal with a plan for her life: study in Spain, then return to New York to marry her dependable, milquetoast fiance (Chris Messina), live modestly and happily. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is a spontaneous girl who never knows what she wants, just what she doesn't want. What she doesn't want this time around is to miss out on a fascinating life with painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). But life with this master seducer of women (he tries it on both girls) means life with his sexy, unhinged ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). And there's the set-up. Most of which is provided for us by a narrator.
Can I say that this is Woody's best work of the decade? It hits all the right notes without being as suffocatingly depressing as Match Point, and only lightly touches on the screwball aspects of Scoop. His last effort to combine drama and comedy in a love story, Melinda and Melinda was almost unwatchable for me; this, however, is a masterpiece.
Yes, the narrator tells us many things that we could see happen instead. But it worked for me, as it made the film more of an examination of passion and of the choices we make, rather than a straight-up drama about Continental neurotics. This and the menage a trois theme reminded me of Jules et Jim, clearly a large influence on this narrative. We get Juan Antonio/Vicky/Cristina, Juan Antonio/Cristina/Maria Elena, Vicky/Juan Antonio/Doug, and so on.
I was constantly amazed that a 72-year-old man wrote and directed this. There's so much passion, so much virility, so much youth! It's an incredibly sexy story, where a lot of the tension is more erotic than the actual sex. Not to say that the sex is dull or anything (good Lord, no), but just feeling the electricity between two characters is hot.
The acting is great. Scarlett Johansson does her usual bit here. You know, as much as I like her, she really is a limited actress. She does what she needs to do, but it's not as impressive as her co-stars' efforts. Javier Bardem is the most natural, instantly charming as the artiste with a rather fatalistic view of life. Penelope Cruz absolutely sizzles when she's on the screen, and as much as I loved Volver, I think this may be my favorite role of hers to date. Rebecca Hall is a solid Vicky; her arc is perhaps the most interesting, as it is one of sexual awakening. In a roomful of crazies, she's the one with a head on her shoulders, though maybe not quite as secure as she hopes.
And Patricia Clarkson, who only appears in, like, six scenes, manages to give the best performance in the film with one heartbreaking scene halfway through. Those hands, that face - they tell us a whole history, a tale of disappointment, of dreams deferred and hope all but gone. An incredible performance, truly, marking another Clarkson great for 2008.
OK, let me put it this way: my second favorite movie of all time is Everyone Says I Love You, Woody Allen's 1996 musical that also dealt with love, threes, and narrators. And I will go so far as to declare that Vicky Cristina Barcelona is his best film since then. Sure, it has some flaws, but my GOD! that is still one bitchin' final product! ***3/4
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