- Rated PG-13
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All photos © Weinstein Co.
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
oody Allen may never return to the top form that made him such an iconic figure in the world of filmmaking, but his latest picture, “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” is at least a step in the right direction. Though the film earned a considerable amount of buzz at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for a supposedly steamy threesome between stars Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz, the scene in question isn’t quite as titillating as you’d imagine. It’s an all-too-brief glimpse at what many would consider the most attractive trio ever formed, but to dwell on it any longer would be to miss out on the film’s better attributes – namely Allen’s keen ability to write for actors as if it were the role they were born to play.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson) are college friends who have decided to escape New York for the summer and travel to Barcelona. While eating dinner one night after attending an art gallery with their generous hosts (Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn), the pair is approached by a painter named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) with a proposition: join him for the weekend in Oviedo where they will eat, drink and make love. Christina practically jumps at the chance to be swept off her feet by the handsome Spaniard, and though Vicky advises otherwise, they’re eventually coerced into joining him on his private getaway.
When a sudden bout of food poisoning forces Christina to stay in bed, however, Juan Antonio takes Vicky on a tour of the city and eventually seduces her into sleeping with him. Though she feels guilty about cheating on her fiancé, Doug (Chris Messina), Vicky can’t get Juan Antonio out of her head. She doesn’t hear from him again for weeks, though – and even then, it’s because he’s interested in seeing Christina – so when Doug surprises her in Barcelona with the idea of getting married early, she dutifully obliges. Meanwhile, Christina moves in with Juan Antonio as their relationship matures, but when his ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), tries to kill herself, he welcomes her back home with open arms.
This is when the film is at its best, with both Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz delivering such electrifying performances that not even Scarlett Johansson’s flat delivery could ruin the moment. The two Spanish-born actors bounce off one another with such fervor that you can’t believe Allen waited this long to introduce such a poignant character. Always most effective when acting in her native tongue (look no further than “Volver” for proof of that), Cruz completely reenergizes the film to the point that she almost steals the whole thing in a matter of minutes. And she would have, were it not for the fact that Bardem is so damn charming as the womanizing Juan Antonio that you actually miss him whenever he’s not onscreen.
Poor Rebecca Hall, who’s counted on to carry a bulk of the first act, is ultimately treated the worst of the quartet. When Christina goes off to have her bisexual adventure with Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, Vicky is stuck with a storyline shrouded in mediocrity. To think what a superior actress like Hall could have done in Johansson’s role is perturbing, especially when Allen’s latest muse has yet to convince me she deserves to be cast in every one of the director’s films.
If there’s anything worse than Johansson’s casting, though, it’s Allen’s use of a narrator. Though the narrator does serve a purpose (without filling in all the back story, the movie would probably run about 30 minutes longer), it makes the transition between scenes feel disjointed. The end result is more like a series of postcards than a film. Still, while some moments don't work as well as others, Allen’s Barcelonan love letter still contains more reasons to see the film than not.