Hot on the continent: Woody Allen returns a match point with his new one, a sensual Spanish story. (Photo by Victor Bello/TWC 2008)

In Spain with 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona'

Dennis Harvey August 12, 2008

In the twilight of his career, famously stay-put New Yorker Woody Allen has suddenly and surprisingly taken to traveling for work. This is a big deal for a filmmaker whose last project shot abroad—perhaps even out-of-state—was 1975’s Love and Death. It spoofed Russian River and the Napoleonic wars, and thus couldn’t quite be pulled off on the Upper West Side or even in Central Park.

Was it the unpleasantness of that experience (Allen doesn’t seem to remember the film fondly), the backyard-set breakthrough of Annie Hall one year later, or sheer xenophobia that kept his projects as close to home as possible for the next three decades?

Whatever it was, it’s evidently over. At the age of 70, he was abruptly making movies in England: 2005’s critical comeback, the sardonic intrigue Match Point, then the more mixed rewards of screwball mystery Scoop and outright drama Cassandra’s Dream. Now he’s gone yea farther afield, setting Vicki Cristina Barcelona in Spain.

Why all the globe-trotting, you might ask? The answer is simple: Between escalating budgets, Allen’s long-shrunken homeground audience, and his loyal European one, he now finds it easier to attract funding overseas, where production costs are lower and his name’s lingering prestige means more than his limited commercial value. How did Vicky come about? For no better reason than his being offered the chance to make a film, any film, so long as it was set/shot in Spain. Geez Woody, what a crass sellout you’ve become!

Well, no. Often inspiration thrives on the limitations wrought by necessity, and it just so happens that Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Allen’s best movie in a while—on par with Match Point artistically, but also more purely enjoyable. It isn’t first-rate Woody, something that hasn’t been seen since (pick your own, moving backwards) Small Time Crooks, Bullets Over Broadway, Husbands and Wives, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Hannah and Her Sisters—or if you’re one of those diehard "I liked the funny ones" types…er, Sleeper?

Let’s say for the moment that such comparisons are odious if inevitable, and that holding VCB up to the canon doesn’t do it, him or us any favors. (Unless, of course, you’re still desperately seeking reassurance that Allen will/can do better than, say, Cassandra, Anything Else or Everyone Says I Love You.) But just because it’s not Manhattan doesn’t mean it still isn’t pretty darn good. Evidently you can teach an old dog new tricks: It’s safe to say that, among its more familiar doses of wit and unexpected character actions, this latest is the first Woody Allen flick that might actually be called sensuous. (I’d stop short of full-on "sexy," though.)

The setup is unpromising, and all too touristy: On a whim best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) decide to summer in Barcelona, where there’s a well-heeled if unhappily married expat relative (Patricia Clarkson) happy to house them in fine style. Engaged to be married to a rock-solid preppie beau back home, sensible Vicky wants a little last adventure—but not too much—before settling down to a conventional home-and-family future. Vaguely artistic, flighty Cristina doesn’t know what she wants, as usual, but she’s up for anything. That includes the intriguingly blunt overtures of Javier Bardem as Juan Antonio, a painter who spies the two women at dinner, waltzes over and invites them to weekend with them—right now. The gall of his none-too-subtly implied menage appalls Vicky, but works like a charm on Cristina; grimacing at her friend’s gullibility, the former reluctantly tags along as chaperone. In picturesque Orviedo, however, things don’t quite go as expected: Easily had Cristina is put out of commission by food poisoning, and in her bed-rest absence hitherto disdainful Vicky finds her self-control unraveling like never before. Back in Barcelona, things revert to norm, with Juan Antonio and the available Cristina growing more serious, while Vicki plans wedlock with her now-visiting fiance (Chris Massina)—though now she’s plagued by secret doubts.

Then a wild card enters the scene: Juan’s famously mercurial ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who can’t live without him, but admits they can’t live with each other, either. She’s nuts, irresistible, almost supernatural—a force of nature who, like a tornado, can leave the other characters scattered in unpredictable new configurations.

Still writing for twentysomethings (particularly young women) in his dotage, Allen has no clue how out of touch he is—the dialogue here (for both Yanks and gratuitously ever-English-speaking Spaniards) often sounds stiltedly false, just as he failed utterly to capture working-class British vernacular in Cassandra’s Dream. That mattered more, though, because Dream was set entirely within that cultural-economic sphere, and was a tragedy besides. Neither quite comedy or drama, Vicky Cristina Barcelona only wants to divert, and has the further good fortune of being about Americans abroad—thus we can accept that something is always being lost in translation. (No Johansson in-joke intended there.)

Shot in golden hues by Javier Aguirresarobe, it’s certainly a superb upscale travel guide in addition to being an amusing, intelligent if not exactly profound meditation on fate, chance, romance, and changeable desire. Maybe Woody should get out more—even more.

For you traditionalists out there, however, fear not: His next (currently known, as usual, as Untitled Woody Allen Project) is duly shooting in NYC. Will Evan Rachel Wood prove his new Scarlett J? I hope not. Is the returning Patricia Clarkson his new Dianne Wiest? That would be nice. Anyway, stay tuned: Just when some were counting him out, Woody Allen has proved he’s still capable of surprising us all.