Woody’s summer in Spain prompts inquisitiveness
August 27, 2008
For a sunny summer abroad in Spain, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” doesn’t stray far from the old school.
Even though it came out last week and stars Oscar’s reigning Best Leading Actor, Javier Bardem, along with pretty young things Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall, it feels like a much older movie. Considering that 72-year-old Woody Allen is behind the camera, that ” and the fact that “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a talky screwball sex comedy that drags in spots ” isn’t too much of a surprise.
Yet the old-school approach is refreshing, especially toward the end of summer blockbuster season. Strangely enough, the last modern movie I saw that sold that ’70s feeling so successfully was a summer actioner, John Singleton’s “Four Brothers” back in ’05. Both have that shag-carpeted glow and pace: “Four Brothers” put out a ’70s-cats-doing-’70s-things vibe while Allen’s new movie paints present-day Spain as a land the past two decades never touched. The only giveaways are the modern-day cell phones and taxicabs.
At any rate, the title made more sense and struck me as less obnoxious with the laid-back presentation it gets on the simple, black-and-white title page than all jammed together in newspaper and Internet reviews:
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Maybe the feel is more early-90s, come to think about it. My associate writes about a song detailing some American boys’ European pratfalls while searching the world over for their muse (see page 29), but “Vicki Cristina Barcelona” well might hinge on a Eurotrash guy: Bardem eschews a pageboy haircut and splattering people’s brains with a cattle gun in favor of stubble and spattering canvases with paint as artist Juan Antonio.
Without giving too much away, the arrival of straight-laced Vicky (Hall) and wannabe bohemian Cristina (Johansson) in Juan Antonio’s Barcelona creates an uneven love triangle, which threatens to turn into a full-fledged quadrangle should the specter of his wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz, who makes her character otherworldly in both beauty and insanity), materialize.
For the most part, the dialogue snaps, crackles and pops back and forth between Spanish and English, especially when Maria Elena argues with her ex-husband, Juan Antonio who exhorts her to speak English while speaking Spanish himself.
Beyond the dialogue, though, heavier questions root “Vicki Cristina Barcelona” in timelessness. It would seem to prompt a lively discussion about men, women and relationships, as well as more facile ones: Does Juan Antonio’s forthright desire for both Vicky and Cristina (and probably Maria Elena as well) make him honest or a sleaze bucket? If Johansson is the Wood man’s new muse, does the director see Bardem, 39, as his stand-in? And, say, if he were able to manipulate his script to have his new muse, starring as Cristina, make out with Maria Elena, would that be experimentally titillating?
Or just creepy?
One theory I’ve held for a long time is that either the difference between Spanish, Mexican and South American is too fine a line for Hollywood to bother differentiating, or that beyond Salma Hayek there must be a dearth of actresses from the latter two locales in Hollywood to necessitate casting Catherine Zeta Jones or Spanish actresses like Paz Vega and Cruz in movies about Mexico.
Actually, I think maybe the competition knows something I don’t. Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone: “Woody Allen goes latin (you heard me), and the romantic, richly comic result ” powered by a dream cast ” is his sexiest movie ever.” I always thought “Latin” referred to South and Central America rather than Spain, but the lower-case “L” and the “you heard me,” suggest that Rolling Stone at least has figured it out, if not explained it.
Looking back on it, that’s a lot of inquisition, if not soul-searching, for a mere 96-minute movie that’s spry, fleet and funny, for the most part. If that’s not a self-serious summer movie that leaves you the minute you leave the theater, I think it might be the antidote.