Woody Allen’s 2008 film Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a film with a moral: People do not change. No, let me rephrase that: People cannot change. Films of great depth have been made with premises as simple as that. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not a film of great depth. Great style? Yes. But not depth. Not that it’s a bad film, but especially compared to some of the masterworks on the human condition that Allen crafted in his 1977-1992 Golden Age (Interiors, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Another Woman, Crimes And Misdemeanors, to name a few) this film simply is out of its depths.
The biggest reason for its lack of depth, despite its possibly intriguing posit is simply that all the five main characters (and a number of the supporting characters) in the film are stereotypes. The characters played by Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, the divorced couple Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, are double stereotypes: Hot blooded Latinos and bad artists who spout clichés and angst — he’s a slimeball user and she’s a psychotic, jealous bitch. The two titular characters, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), are equally stereotypical. Vicky is a bored hausfrau in the making, a drone seeking a useless degree, and Cristina is a terminal ‘Joey’ (see Allen’s Interiors), someone with a desire to express their feelings but no intellect nor talent to do so. In short, she’s a poseur. The fifth and final main character, Doug — Vicky’s fiancé then husband (Chris Messina) — is the prototypical yuppy scum.
Having said that, the lightness (style over substance) of the film actually aids it through its 96 minutes. Compared to an earlier Allen film on young love, like Anything Else, this film at least has its stereotypes utter banalities that are believable for them to think and say. It opens with a voiceover (by Christopher Evan Welch) describing the similarities and differences of the two leads, as they drive to Vicky’s relative’s home, for a summer in Barcelona. Vicky is the drudge and Cristina the free spirit. Vicky believes in solid, dependable love and Cristina will ‘risk all’ for love. Again, not a promising setup, but it would have been much worse if set in Manhattan. After an art show, the duo is approached by Juan Antonio, who proposed a ménage a trios in a different city, Oviedo. Vicky demurs (with Woody-like bravado) while Cristina accepts, and talks Vicky into going. They take a small plane, and although Cristina decides to sleep with Juan, her ulcer acts up, and despite her protestations, Vicky ends up doing it with Juan — a plot contrivance one could see coming from the first scenes in the restaurant, and the very fact that all women who protest too much about a certain man (at least in poorly written plots) end up actually desiring said man, and losing all sense by having sex with him.
After the weekend, Vicky marries her fiancé, and Cristina moves in with Juan — stereotype alert! Let me interrupt the narrative to backtrack a moment — Juan’s father happens to be a Spanish bum who writes beautiful poetry he refuses to share with the world. Juan and Vicky ask why he doesn’t just publish his poems? I guess in Spain publishers will publish anything by anyone, without deference to cronyism, as in the United States. Then we get the beaut of a reason the old man does not publish — he wants to keep beauty from the world because humans have not learnt to love. Ugh! Back to the plot: After a suicide attempt, Juan’s ex-wife, Maria Elena moves in. They had famously split, causing a rift in the Spanish art world, after she stabbed him when he eyed another woman. Juan, however, decides to put her up, not long after Cristina has moved in (this is an emotional trope taken straight from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, but Bardem is no Marcello Mastroianni). After initial reservations, the trio become sexually involved with each other — the two women even enjoying lesbian romps. Cristina then waffles, decides to move out, and Maria goes crazy, and she and Juan split up. Meanwhile, Vicky’s marriage is not so great, she gets hit on by a student at the University, and mistakes a flirtation by Juan (meant for Cristina) as being directed toward her. Her host (Patricia Clarkson), whom Vicky caught in an infidelity, encourages her to leave her husband for Juan. Knowing that Cristina has left him, Vicky goes to Juan’s apartment, only to be accidentally shot by a raging Maria.
The film ends with gullible and duped Doug (whom the audience never cares for because of the superficiality of his views and actions) never finding out the truth of Vicky’s Barcelona misadventures, nor Cristina ever getting what she wants, for she has no clue what that is. Juan and Maria end up exactly where they were, too because, as I stated, the film’s moral is people cannot change. The overall message of the film is one that is, for the most part, true, but there is a gnawing dissatisfaction that this reality was sculpted using such dislikable and predictable characters. In many respects, the aforementioned La Dolce Vita has a very similar message in it. The difference is that that film has a handful of major themes and this one only one, as well as the fact that the few main characters in the Fellini film are multivalent in their sketchings and the film presents incidents that the viewer can relate to and suffer through with the characters. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the viewer is gazing at the characters. We are at a human zoo. This is satisfactory enough an approach for a work of science, perhaps, but not for a work of art. Art that satisfies just the heart dissipates, because it almost never has enough substance to titillate the brain. But, art that strikes at the brain first almost always has enough to seep down and affect the emotions. Allen’s film fails both scores — it is too lightweight intellectually and too cold emotionally.
The DVD, put out by Genius Products, has no extra features, as in all Allen DVD releases. The film is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
Some critics have praised the use of a voiceover narrator in the film, while others, like James Berardinelli, have condemned it. The truth is that it’s neither here nor there. Yes, there are moments when it is needlessly recapitulative, but others where it makes for handy elisions of superfluous moments. The voice of Welch, though, is perhaps too much like a young Woody Allen’s, and given that Hall’s Vicky is clearly the designated neurotic Woody character, this vocal affinity of Welch’s subliminally biases the viewer toward feeling a certain way toward Vicky that otherwise might not exist — i.e., it makes the screenplay seem more about Vicky because she is seen as the Woody character — pro or con, depending on the viewer’s preconceptions of the real life Allen and his neurotic onscreen characterizations. The film’s strongest point, however, is its anti-climactic ending, wherein all the characters return to where they were. If only the rest of the film were as spare and poetic, then Vicky Cristina Barcelona would have been a film that could be argued for greatness.
As for the actors, the best performance was likely given by Bardem, although he also had the least complicated part — the slimeball user (best described by Vicky as a ‘charmingly candid wifebeater’). Hall and Messina actually had good chemistry together, which made a viewer wonder why Vicky would give a damn about the slimy Juan, except for the obvious; that Allen was pandering to the Lowest Common Denominator Hollywood ideal of romantic love (being in love) somehow being better than true love (being loved). Scarlett Johansson was again misused by Allen. Her best role was in Allen’s light comedy, Scoop, where she proved to be quite an adept comedienne — surpassed in the Allen pantheon of female comic talents only by Diane Keaton. But where this idea arose of her as a sex symbol is mystifying. She’s simply a rather average looking young woman, far more suited to the girl next door roles that would have once gone to Donna Reed or Doris Day than the roles she gets, which would have once gone to Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield. It’s truly mystifying, as Johansson simply lacks the sexual ‘It’ factor. But, worst of all is Penelope Cruz. Putting aside the character’s stereotypes, I have seen her in a handful of films and a) she cannot act (despite claims that she is far better in Spanish language films than English ones, for over 50% of her role here is in Spanish), and b) like Johansson, she is almost always cast as a sex bomb, despite the fact that she’s just an average looking woman and, in this film, looks scrawny, if not outright anorexic. Despite, at times looking like a younger, prettier Mackenzie Phillips, the best looking female in the film, by far, is Rebecca Hall, the least known of the trio. She also is, easily, the best actress.
The film also benefits from some great cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe, and by that I do not mean merely that Barcelona was beautiful to look at. There are numerous well framed shots, and shots from interesting angles, such as when Cristina and Maria go around the city photographing sights and people. Aguirresarobe is not a cinematographer I’ve seen the work of before, but after this film, and given his great surname, his is work I will look for in the future, despite whatever director he works with in the future. It is because of the strengths of the film (the cinematography, Bardem’s and Hall’s performances, the sometimes great deployment of ellipses and narration) that I can recommend Vicky Cristina Barcelona as, at least, a good way to spend a couple of hours in filmic revery. Don’t expect a masterpiece from Allen’s Golden Age, and you will do ok. Go in thinking it’s another Hollywood Ending, though, and you will end the film smiling. Given the lows of some of Allen’s work post-Golden Age, that’s as close to a rave as you will find, at least from me.