January 19th, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

by Stephanie Segal • in Films

Disclaimer: One might expect a biased review from me here because I have much affection for Woody Allen and several of his works. I am in no way an aficionado, but I do go in to one of his films with expectations: I expect quality writing and acting.

Disclaimer B: Generally I don’t prefer Penelope Cruz. Though her name was the one I heard most associated with VCB before seeing it, Woody Allen’s trumped it.

Playing Vicky is one Rebecca Hall, an actress I have never seen before. I wish that were still the case. Allen was shooting for a character type he uses often, an uptight New York intellectual with a quick tongue and so sure of themselves that it becomes obvious their unraveling is potentially imminent and laughter will ensue. In this case, Vicky is engaged to be married and reminds us of it constantly. Hall plays the stick up her butt with such over-conviction that when she virtually abandons who she was and becomes a neurotic doubt stricken woman it just doesn’t fly and no laughter ensues. I’m unclear whether to blame her acting choices or a script that has our devoted, determined, reasonable lead morph overnight into a frazzled disaster because of a man (played flatly and most unsmolderingly by Javier Bardem). It’s a little insulting and a lot not convincing. But it’s Hall’s work in a scene toward the end that wins the lack of believability award over the lame character overhaul. Without giving too much away, she finds herself amid flying bullets and there is just no way to buy what she says and does here.

One more word on Vicky. Not to be cruel but most of Bardem’s lines with her involve him repeating how beautiful she is. Because I was unfamiliar with her face, I really gave it a good look to check on this beauty. In so doing, I came upon the startling discovery that Ms. Hall’s eyeballs are proportionally way too small for the size of her eyes. The more I scrutinized, the more they started resembling little pin balls zinging around in a white pinball machine. Oh well. At least she knew how to handle all the different wine glasses (and there are a ridiculous amount of them in VCB) believably, which is more than I can say for…

Please tell me Woody Allen’s wood for Scarlett Johansson is a thing of the past. Yes, she’s gorgeous and voluptuous and with the blonde hair and shorts in VCB nearly channels Marilyn Monroe, but oh my God, she sucks as Critsina. From her failed efforts to be effortless in her unnatural line delivery (in a Woody Allen movie!) to the absurd gesturing with her hands (typical of Allen’s own roles in past films, but he pulls it off so you barely notice and Johansson makes it oaf-y) to the plain stupid way she handles glassware. There was a coffee cup, a myriad of wine glasses, but the worst offense was the champagne flute. She tipped that flute back like it was a tic, one mini-sip mini-sip infuriating mini-sip after the other during the entirety of the scene it was in.

Cristina is the fly by night bohemian, deep with promiscuity and supposed complication. Her motto for life is ‘I don’t know what I want, I only know what I don’t want.’ This childish whine is complex and complicated enough to represent a main character’s core? Apparently Allen thought so, and the viewer is presented with this philosophy about three times during the film (read: beaten over the head with it), thanks to the obnoxious oversimplifying and overbearing narrator, but more on him later.

If you have never entertained the idea of traveling to Spain, VCB might change that. The locations served as such marvelous backdrops, their potential for exploration is undeniable. If Allen made this movie for the Barcelona tourism industry he has succeeded more than I give him credit for. From the idyllic country landscapes to the unique architecture and sprawling homes used in filming, it’s an intoxicating sight for the eyes. Too bad every time it was possible to relax and appreciate scenes with no dialogue (sad in an Allen venture, but true) because the setting had so much whimsy, the aforementioned tireless drone of the narrator would cut in and spell out each character’s every move. It went quickly from grating to unbearable. Had Allen himself narrated perhaps it would have added some levity, life or humor (if that’s what you are looking for in a narrator let me steer you to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a fun flick where Robert Downey Jr just kills it). Instead we are held prisoner to this bland voice of ennui that breaks it down the way the dialogue would in a good Woody Allen movie.

Hey, did you notice the review is nearly over and there hasn’t been mention of Penelope Cruz since the disclaimer? That’s because Cruz is a side dish in VCB, and deserved to be a main course. She is the best thing going in VCB and her part should have been reworked for more screen time. She is funny, angry, crazy and (finally!) genuine in her role as Maria Elena. In a recent film trend I find puzzling, most of the exchanges between she and Bardem (and Bardem and his movie-father) are not treated with subtitles. The end result being the most interesting scenes in the movie are far less gratifying than they could and should have for lack of translation, and the viewer, left out, is frustrated and confused. And bitter! Do writers and directors not realize the audience would rather know what is being said than not? Have they forgotten we paid to get in and want our money’s worth…i.e. to be granted the gift of translation and avoid the annoyance of the WHAT DID HE JUST SAY feeling?

And while I have the caps lock key going, um, Patricia Clarkson? BREATHE SOME LIFE INTO IT, would you? I had to fight to stay awake during her scene on the couch with Vicky. It was endless.
Thankfully, the movie was not. Yes, it cuts off with unanswered questions, and not the stimulating ‘lets go for coffee and discuss what that ending could mean’ kind of thing…its got more of a ‘that’s IT?’ effect, but I wasn’t complaining. VCB moves right past Woody Allen’s long list of film darlings and gets thrown instead onto his pile of duds. Don’t let the Golden Globe fool you.


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