Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Some American Broads

Movie critics are in the midst of yet another frenaissance with New York icon and cinematic expatriate Woody Allen. After releasing seventeen Manhattan-centric movies each year for the past 62 years, Woody decamped for London with Match Point in 2005. The film won Allen his best reviews in years, with many declaring the hop across the pond just the breath of fresh air he needed. However the next two anglophiliac exercises, Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream, fell short of Match Point’s promise. So now the director has gone in search of the exotic once again with Vicky Cristina Barcelona, set in the titular Spanish city.

The film follows the exploits of Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (current Allen muse Scarlett Johannson), two young Americans whose summer abroad is disrupted by quintessentially suave Spaniard Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem sans mop top). A love triangle emerges and eventually expands into a square with the introduction of Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio’s crazed ex-wife.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona excels as a meditation on Allen’s own wanderlust. Cristina bemoans the “puritanical and materialistic” America she’s left behind. Allen, no stranger to sordid tabloid speculation and perpetual Hollywood outlier, didn’t have to strain too hard to write such a character. Vicky’s bland fiancĂ© Doug (Chris Messina) is the sole connection to New York in the film. If Doug-a corporate lawyer and a prude in pleated khakis- embodies contemporary New York for Allen, the city might be waiting a long while for the return of its prodigal son. For now though, Barcelona, or at least Allen’s version of it, provides the articulate bohemian cafĂ© culture that millennial Manhattan lacks. But the bevy of tourist snapshots in Vicky Cristina suggest that Allen does not know the city all that intimately. And that hazy sense of place rubs off on the characters who inhabit it.

Stacked up against Allen's ouevre, his latest lacks both the (arguably overcooked) pathos of tragedies like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Interiors and Match Point and the belly laughs of Annie Hall or Bullets Over Broadway. The director is capable of a happy medium- Hannah and Her Sisters, my favorite Woody movie, incorporates elements of both genres- but Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels muddled, not confident of what it wants to be. This problem boils down to underwritten characters. Allen, via the film’s narrator, hammers us over the head with the philosophical schism between pragmatic Vicky and impetuous Cristina. (Voiceover narration is rarely a good sign in movies. Directors might as well send a telegraph describing their characters’ motivations.) Allen even provides glimpses of how the pair might turn out if they slavishly adhere to their divergent paths: conventionally successful but emotionally stilted Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and passionate but deranged Maria Elena.

But the friends are held at a curious distance from each other over the course of the film, denying any sort of synthesis or evolution of opinion. I wish Vicky and Cristina really went at it. Not in a darkroom, as Cristina and Marie Elena do, but over dinner or a drink. So many of Woody’s characters have engaged in emotional combat like this: the sisters in Hannah, Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack in Husband and Wives, Mariel Hemingway and Allen himself in Manhattan. Exhausted and furious and incorrigible as they may seem, their only salve is bitter, profane, intelligent conversation. It might be the languid Catalonian sun that makes Vicky and Cristina soft. Perhaps a sequel could find them in baggage at JFK, enjoying the kind of barbed confrontation Woody always provided at top form.

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