Friday, October 17, 2008

Woody takes a Spanish holiday

Woody Allen has increasingly become an acquired taste, but his latest film “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” — his first film set in Spain — may prove to hit the spot for those who never appreciated his work in the past.

This is Allen’s fourth film in a row — following three set in London — that was made outside of his beloved New York, the location for all of his previous films. Allen doesn’t break any new ground or try anything drastically different with his material, but as was true with "Match Point," his first London film, the writer/director seems invigorated by the Spanish locales and language. This helps the film feel fresh.

The film focuses on two American friends, the impetuous, free-spirit Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and the logical, soon-to-wed Vicky (Rebecca Hall), who are spending the summer in Barcelona. Shortly upon arriving they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a painter who makes them an interesting offer: join him for a weekend of good food, good wine and love-making.

Cristina is taken by the proposition and the two women do join Juan Antonio, but make no promises in the love-making category. Soon Cristina is living with Juan Antonio and Vicky is left confused by guilt of growing feelings for the mysterious Spaniard.

Just as the film begins to drag, it is enlivened by Penelope Cruz in a hilariously high-strung and overwrought performance as Juan Antonio’s ex-wife Maria Elena. Cruz, who is an extraordinary actress in her native tongue, but has struggled in English language roles, is great here and if there were any one reason to see the film, it is for her.

That isn’t to say that everyone else isn’t also working on a level of acting excellence. Those who are only familiar with Bardem for his Oscar-winning performance in “No Country For Old Men” will be surprised how charismatic and handsome he is in this film. His smooth Spanish accent gives something extra to Allen’s dialogue.

If Allen had been in the Bardem role during the pick-up scene, which he likely would’ve been 30 years ago, it would’ve played for laughs. With Bardem, the proposal, though amusing, is somewhat believable and you can hardly blame the two ladies for going along with it.

Johansson, in her third Allen film, is becoming progressively more comfortable with Allen’s brand of fast talking, sophisticated dialogue. She doesn’t seem in control of her smoldering sexuality, which is just right for Cristina, a woman who doesn’t know what she wants in life or love.

Hall, who was charming in the little-seen British comedy “Starter for 10,” has the least flashy of the four lead roles, but her quiet performance is just as compelling as Cruz’ explosive one.

Vicky, who is insecure, a bit neurotic and has a razor tongue, is the most overtly Allen-esque character of the cast. Hall gets the tone just right in delivering the tricky Allen dialogue and makes Vicky the film's most human character.

For those who care about this sort of thing, yes, Cruz and Johansson do make out. For that matter so do Bardem and Johansson and Bardem and Cruz and then all three together. There is sex, but it remains off-camera. Although the moments of passion that are shown are sensual, the film is less about the physicality of the acts than the emotional and intellectual states that they create.

The film isn’t perfect. It relies too heavily on a voice-over narration that tells the audience exactly what Vicky and Cristina are thinking. This is effective at establishing the characters quickly and allows the film to get right into the action, but becomes tiresome when it glosses over potentially compelling scenes and tells the audience things they can figure out on their own.

Allen has always had a fondness for European directors and throughout his career has attempted to emulate them. Perhaps it is the Spanish setting, but for the first time he has made a film that genuinely feels like a European art house film. It isn't "Annie Hall" or "Manhattan," but for non-fans that may be a good thing.

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