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August 18, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | August 18, 2008 |

There’s a great scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, a flashback that shows a young Annie talking to a spacey actor at a party. “Acting is like an exploration of the soul,” he opines. “It’s very religious, like a kind of liberating consciousness. It’s like a visual poem.” He then slumps toward the floor and says, “Touch my heart … with your foot.” Allen’s latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is a closer examination of a guy like that and the women who love him.

Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a Spanish painter, is certainly a looker, but from the moment he approaches two American tourists, friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), and recommends they join him in a remote town for a weekend threesome, it’s clear that he’s also a cheeseball. His pitch — that life is short, that beauty shouldn’t be wasted, that conventional morality is boring, etc. — is a collection of paper-thin clichés to cover the pursuit of his own pleasure. (Later on, he tells Vicky that his father, a poet, is mad at humanity because, after so many centuries of civilization, we still haven’t learned to love. Yeah, he’s one of those guys.) This initial invitation easily unlocks Cristina, a perpetually dissatisfied emotional roller coaster who’s in Spain to forget her most recent flame and get some pleasure of her own. Vicky, a practical type with a reliable and dull fiancé waiting back in the U.S., is in Spain to do cultural research. She agrees to go along, only to watch after Cristina.

In an unsurprising, but well handled, turn of events, Vicky ends up falling for Juan Antonio, but it’s Cristina with whom the artist embarks on a passionate affair. Allen has been merciful in keeping his love for Johansson vicarious — God forbid they ever kiss on screen. But casting her at all is getting tiresome. Her pinup qualities remain abundantly clear, but her acting chops have not kept pace with her curves. It’s true that her vacant expressions fit the plot, in which Juan Antonio has more complex feelings for the more complex Vicky. Still, Allen would do well to search for a more gifted muse.

Hall is very good as Vicky, and just as much the lead as anyone else, so it’s easy to feel bad for her having been crowded off the movie’s poster by the three bigger stars — Bardem, Johansson and Penélope Cruz. More than halfway through the movie, Cruz still hasn’t shown up, but when she does, as Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, Marie Elena, she’s incendiary. She’s recently attempted suicide, and comes to stay with Juan Antonio and Cristina, sparking a three-way relationship. Vicky Cristina Barcelona often feels more Almodóvar than Woody, and never more than when Cruz is owning the screen with crazy-hilarious-sad-bilingual outbursts. It’s a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination.

At 72, Allen appears to have persevered past an embarrassing stage. He’s not making great movies anymore, but he’s cranking out enjoyable diversions. And it’s nice to see him continue the recent trend of lavishing his attention on great cities outside New York. Vicky’s romantic awakening at the hands of a transparent lothario like Juan Antonio is pat, but the performances are strong enough to make up for the character arcs. An omniscient voice-over throughout threatens to send Barcelona off the rails by mostly repeating things we easily learn by watching the action. (The technique should really require committee approval at this point.) The movie is saved by Bardem’s charisma, Cruz’s riveting turn, and just enough romantic philosophy to kick-start spirited debate about what we talk about when we talk about love.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

Everyone's a Little Queer/ Can't She Be a Little Straight?

Vicky Cristina Barcelona / John Williams

Film | August 18, 2008 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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