Directed By: Woody Allen
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Evan Welch
Tag line: "Life is the ultimate work of art"
Trivia: Despite winning an Oscar, Penélope Cruz is only in the film for 41 minutes. Its 51 minutes before she finally appears
Every so often, Woody Allen likes to reinvent himself. After kicking off his career in the late 60s and early ‘70s with madcap comedies (Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Sleeper), he delved into more serious subject matter, such as love and relationships, in Annie Hall and Manhattan, even going so far as to direct a straight-up drama (1978’s Interiors, an homage of sorts to his idol, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman). Following a string of sub-par pictures in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, the New York-centric Allen sought his muse overseas, starting with the London-based drama/romance, Match Point, which I consider the best film I saw in 2005. Apparently, the move to Europe was just what the doctor ordered; in 2011, Allen won his second Academy Award as a writer for Midnight in Paris, and in 2008 he turned out Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a movie shot almost entirely in Spain that’s arguably the sexiest, most alluring film he ever made.
Even though they’re best friends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) couldn’t be more different. Vicky, who’s engaged to be married to a New York banker (Chris Messina), is the sensible one, while Cristina is a free spirit, a struggling artist looking for love in all the wrong places. They decide to spend a summer together in Spain, hoping to relax and do a little sightseeing, but a chance encounter with a mysterious artist named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) changes all that. Rumored to be recovering from his turbulent marriage to ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio asks both Vicky and Cristina to accompany him on a weekend getaway. Vicky is not at all interested in Juan Antonio’s offer, yet goes along anyway to keep an eye on Cristina, who is smitten with the handsome Spaniard. It proves to be a weekend that none of the three will soon forget.
In an interesting twist, Allen utilizes a narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) throughout Vicky Cristina Barcelona, who provides background information on each of the characters while also letting us know, from time to time, what’s inside their heads. In most cases, narration is considered an “easy out” for filmmakers, a way to tell us what’s going on as opposed to showing us, but in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it’s never intrusive, and reminded me a lot of Alec Baldwin’s narration for Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, making it feel like a work of literature committed to film. As for the main cast, Rebecca Hall is convincingly awkward as the straight-laced, yet ultimately confused Vicky, while Johansson is quite good as the fun-loving Cristina. Fresh off his Oscar-winning portrayal of the sadistic Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, Javier Bardem plays a much different character in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and is superb in the part, but the film’s best performance is delivered by Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena, Juan Antonio’s fiery ex-wife. Brimming with fierce emotions and practically oozing sexuality, Cruz doesn’t even show up until the movie’s halfway point, yet still manages to steal just about every scene she’s in.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an outstanding motion picture in every regard, but when it comes to the heart and soul of the film, it’s Cruz all the way.