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I Get a Woody Just Thinking About It!

Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Dir. Woody Allen, Now Playing

Woody Allen’s latest comedy, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, does not include a menage à trois. All the talk pre-opening weekend felt like the ad campaign for Gossip Girl—full of sex, threesomes, or whatever would catch public interest. Writer/director Allen succeeds six-fold in this regard: he got Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johanssen, Javier Bardem, Patricia Clarkson, and of course, himself, all on one reel, which, for most New Yorkers, is reason enough to go to the movies. Lucky for Woody, the cast triumphs, and Woody makes his appearance (not in a cameo, although that would have been funny and old school), but in the hovering presence of his style, his sexual desire, and this very Woody Allen script. Who else would use the phrase “make love” anymore?

This is a movie star. © 2008 The Weinstein Company
This is a movie star. © 2008 The Weinstein Company

The plot is simple: Vicky (well played by Rebecca Hall, daughter of Sir Peter Hall) and Cristina (played by Scarlett Johanssen) go to Barcelona for the summer. They’re women in search of…something. They meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a lustful artist, and Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), his brilliant, beautiful ex-wife. Cristina is a naïve, cherubic American girl looking for love. Vicky is a New York neurotic—the female Woody Allen—about to marry a dull fratty guy, and freaked out about it. A love quadrangle ensues, and the clash of American tourists and bombshell Spaniards makes for decent, semi-sexy comedic moments. There’s a dash of Gaudi and lots of wine. Wine for breakfast, and bike rides in the countryside, painting, and “making love.” So Euro...

Stylistically, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Woody Allen, and so not Woody Allen. Woody’s channeling Pedro Almodovar. Penelope Cruz is Almodovar’s muse (she appeared in All About My Mother, and Volver and she calls him her best friend), and Spain his native land. Allen uses Almodovar’s cinematographer from Talk to Her (2002), Javier Aguirresarobe, and cops many Pedro moves. Remember in Talk to Her when the bullfighter and the journalist swoon to Caetano Veloso strumming his guitar at a private party in a villa by the beach? A guitarist strums here, too, and others swoon. Allen spins it his own way—there’s a slow motion make-out scene where Javier and one of the turistas literally fall off screen in an embrace. You have to hand it to Woody. He’s a crowd pleaser, not a tear jerker. The humor here is on the surface, and never goes deeper. As for Barcelona, it doesn’t become too much of a character, either, which is a shame. But Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a movie about tourists, made by a tourist. Woody does know how to use his actors. Scarlett Johanssen gets outshined by the rest, but that aligns with her character; her face is vacant, but you feel like that’s the point (whether or not her vacancy is purposeful is up for discussion). Rebecca Hall nails it with her over-analytical and chilly take on love. Javier Bardem, whom every man wants to be—confident, sexy, a real artist—leads each woman to a deeper understanding of love, or in Cristina’s case, “what she doesn’t want.” It’s too bad Patricia Clarkson doesn’t have more lines. As for Penelope Cruz, yowza! She’s reached a new level of comfort and confidence, and you can tell this part was fun. An image that sticks is Cruz hurtling down a dirt road on a bicycle, wearing a white slip and a black felt Spanish hat, hooting and hollering—classic.

As for the constant (and lengthy) voiceover narration in Barcelona, fine. But why didn’t Woody do the voiceover himself? It’s not like a woman narrated it, or a man with a Spanish accent. Instead he chose Christopher Evan Welch, who sounds like Woody did twenty years ago. He could have chosen anyone, why someone who sounded just like him, and might as well have been him? He’s hiding, but for what reason, who knows. We all know he’s there, fantasy for fantasy straight out his dream journal!

The claims for girl on girl action are misleading. Every homo or hetero-normative person can attest to wanting to see Penelope Cruz kiss anyone, even her own sister, and locking lips with Scarjo in Barcelona is about the highest level of fantasy. But the moment plays almost too obviously Woody Allen; enough already with the wet dream. Allen’s trying to make a point about common notions of love and romance (hello, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides on Vicky’s nightstand!), but his take is not that modern. The American women are unaware of their sexuality and hide it under frumpy clothes (albeit designer—every watch is an Hermes), and they need a studly artist to remind them of their feminity and bravery. Penelope Cruz, the liberated woman, is so liberated she tries to kill herself. So beautiful and so genius, yet she cannot survive without Juan Antonio (a lesser artist, but still a male) by her side. Patricia Clarkson is in a loveless marriage, but won’t leave the boob; Vicky’s destined for the same, and Cristina remains aimless, and dissatisfied. The only characters who know what they want or who they are, are the men; their power lies in their lack of introspection, and their pragmatic approach to marriage and sex.

Woody Allen may be trying to glorify seemingly intellectual women by launching their sexuality in Europe (on a three-seater plane to Oviedo, an island off the coast; listening to guitar in a bar; drinking wine while painting; making love in the moonlight!) but instead turns them into feeble clichés, desperate for a fantasy man as a lover. Thus, the plight of Woody Allen; he doesn’t completely get women. But because he can get away with virtually anything, he gets away with Vicky Cristina Barcelona and the crowd leaves happy, even without a threesome that would launch a thousand ships. Let’s look forward to Pedro Almodovar’s romantic comedy about waitresses in Katz’s Deli, starring Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow.


Makenna Goodman

Makenna Goodman is a freelance writer based in New York City.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2008

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