My friend Chris is a big Woody Allen fan. As we were growing up, he was always singing the director's praises, relishing the New York-ness of his films and his dry humor, the development of the characters and the depth of their interaction.
But I was always kind of a hard sell. Firstly, there's the nagging sense that about 80% of Allen's zillion films are really the same movie told over and over again in slightly different guises. (I remember someone lodging a similar complaint about Gustav Mahler: "Any one of the symphonies will suffice to say whatever Mahler has to say; the others are repetitive and superfluous!") Secondly, and more to the point for me, I never found that one movie terribly compelling. After watching Woody playing always the same character--a neurotic, stammering, self-obsessed Jew--and squirming through the obligatory chaotic extended-family dinner scene that seems to appear in nearly every movie--tensions bubbling just beneath the surface as we all wait for the blowup--I stopped being able to convince myself of the necessity of coming back for a recap.
But as I got older I did begin to revisit some of his films, and I've come to think that maybe my friend was a good deal ahead of me (as so often seems to be the case). Allen does have some recurring themes and characters, but the films cover more ground than I had allowed. Annie Hall (Best Picture Oscar winner of 1977) and Small Time Crooks and Zelig and Bullets Over Broadway are quite different films. Manhattan, with its luscious black & white views of New York and its vibrant Gershwin soundtrack, has become a closet favorite of mine.
Allen's latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is his 60th film as writer, and his 43rd as director (with another movie, Whatever Works, yet to be released). Unusually, since Allen's films are almost exclusively set in Manhattan, this film is set in Barcelona (as the title might have given away) and follows two young American women as they spend two months of their summer in Spain, staying with a relative. The women, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson), are lifelong best friends, and they're in Europe for a final jaunt together before Vicky's planned marriage at the end of the year. In a Barcelona restaurant one night they meet Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem), a painter who is recovering from a tumultuous divorce. With disarming openness he invites the two women to accompany him on a weekend of good food, wine and lovemaking, to which offer the two women have very different reactions. But the weekend happens, and the women's lives are changed in expected and unexpected ways.
This is Allen's third film in short succession starring Scarlett Johansson, and one senses that she is acting as a muse for the aging director, like Hitchcock's collection of statuesque blondes. But Johansson, despite her very sensual construction, is no Grace Kelly; and I just can't ever find her quite believable (however much I'm happy to make the attempt). Even, or maybe especially, when she's tasked with playing the wildcat. There's always just a little awkward self-consciousness that spoils the illusion for me. Javier Bardem, on the other hand, comes off very well as the sensual artist. He has the right smoldering, Mediterranean look for the part, and his accent is musical to listen to. The other face of the triangle is played by the Briton Rebecca Hall, who is a relative newcomer to film. This is the first I've seen of her. Her Vicky plays the little voice of conscience whispering in the libertine Christina's ear, except that there's no whispering involved--indeed, her reactions to events come out of her like a machine gun.
The fourth member of the central cast is Penelope Cruz. She has the best role in the film as the half-crazy Maria Elena, Juan Antonio's fiery ex-wife. The ex-couple have both concluded that their marriage was fatally lacking some fundamental ingredient, yet they remain inextricably linked together. Maria Elena's presence in the story might add an unnecessary wing to the plot, but the scenes with her in them seem the best in the movie to me.
Each of these four characters has their own story arc, and while the scenes with Maria Elena are the most compelling to me, it's Vicky's arc that presents the film's central ache. Slated to be shortly married to a man she believes she loves very much, and being a woman who knows her own mind, her interaction with Juan Antonio rather puts her worldview on its ear, and her search for meaning seems the most searching, the challenge to her established person the most difficult. Ms. Hall plays this part beautifully, and she carries much of the film's emotional weight.
The film has a lot of narration. This is not a first for Allen, but it's a little disconcerting. The narrator is not one of the movie's characters, and there's just a sense that narration has been written to make up for what the story fails to relate to us on its own. Well, it would be a very different movie without the narration--or it would need to be. I'm not opposed to narration at all, but in this case I found the narration distracting; it collapsed the bubble into which the movie had immersed us.
I thought at first that maybe the story had just a bit too much unreality about it, but now I find myself thinking it actually holds together pretty well. I don't know that things wrap up in a very satisfying way, and I'm not sure that all the details seem quite realistic, and yet life can be like that. There's a sense that we're looking in on a particular moment of convergence for the two young women, a chance coming-together followed by a dispersal when the moment has passed. The story works, even if it doesn't need to necessarily, and I was drawn along by the visual beauty and excellent pacing (narration notwithstanding). Plug in his ubiquitous white-on-black typewritten credits (like he got a deal on them 40 years ago and is still using them up) and his standard Django Reinhard-esque soundtrack and here's proof that the original theme can yet spawn more worthy variations.