The 21st century for Mr. Woody Allen as a filmmaker has been patchy to say the least. There have been a couple in this current era that have been decent (Melinda and Melinda and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion come to mind), but the majority of them have been mediocre or, on occasion, pretentious disappointments (Match Point). One would expect that since this is the man who gave us such greats as Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters, a return to form is inevitable.
It's very pleasing to see the clever, funny, and extremely well written Vicky Cristina Barcelona bring Allen back on form. It seems that a complicated story has been his downfall over the last few years (the biggest example being the mentioned Match Point), evidenced by how well the simple story works here. It gives us a chance to get to know the characters, get taken in by the flowing dialogue, and enjoy just what that comedic/romantic mind of Mr. Allen still has to offer us without any fuss.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona follows two young women, one very traditional (Vicky, played by Rebecca Hall) and one more free spirited (Cristina, played by Scarlett Johansson), who decide to visit and spend a summer in Barcelona. Soon after they arrive, they meet a charming painter named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who seduces them into going to a small, nearby island for the weekend. As they both become enamoured with him in their own ways, they are unaware that his ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), with whom he has a tempestuous relationship, is about to come back into his life.
The film’s simple structure and story could very well be a bit underwhelming or even disappointing to anyone more accustomed to the more eventful motion picture. However, the film celebrates the wonder of simplistic storytelling, the kind where the story is really just the backdrop for the characters and dialogue. And it's in these two areas that Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a success, not only because of the elements themselves, but how they work in tandem with one another.
The characters are introduced plainly and simplistically, as is the story. Two women, both very much opposite in how they look at life and love, are to spend a summer in Barcelona, but it's when they are approached rather brazenly by Juan that things really get interesting. His character is simply the master of seduction, a guy who knows exactly what he's doing when it comes to words and how he says them.
Cristina is immediately the one of the two women who is drawn to him, while Vicky is adamantly against any requests he has (such as them all making love together). However, it's clear that both of these women will fall for this man at one point or another, and it's interesting to see how differently it happens for each of them.
In a seemingly effortless way, Allen manages to simplistically introduce and run with these characters, while still making them fully rounded, believable people. These are characters with human problems who go through human emotions pertaining to love, betrayal, and making the most of life, and not once is what happens on-screen not believable.
It's definitely set in a place and culture not all that familiar to most of the audience who will see the film, but Allen places us firmly in this setting and we are free to enjoy it right along side the characters. It's clear that Allen has a strong liking for the setting of Barcelona, and the movie often just allows us to bask in the beauty of the surrounding scenery.
The primary strength of the film is the dialogue: the witty banter back and forth between the characters, the subtleties to the way they conduct themselves with what they choose to say and not say, and the savvy nature of the conversations. Often is the dialogue whip-sharp and razor edged, sometimes with sarcasm, sometimes not, that fully shows that Mr. Allen hasn't yet lost his creative spark.
The man is 73, and yet he's writing dialogue like he's still in his 40's. Perhaps it was the setting that's widely different to most the others he's worked in, or the change of genres to more of a straight-up comedy that's allowed him to produce his best work in about a decade.
Just when you think the film couldn't get any more interesting, funny, or poignant, Maria Elena turns up. She is mentioned pretty much since the introduction of Juan Antonio as the crazed woman he can't live with or without. Juan obviously hides the fact he's still in love with her from Vicky and Cristina, but it comes inevitably shining through once Maria re-enters his life.
This is when the film is kicked from subtle comedy into more of a straight up one; the film is never gut-bustingly funny, but Cruz's scenes definitely provide the biggest laughs. Although it must be noted that although Cruz is definitely very good here, she did not deserve her Best Supporting Actress Oscar; her win is simply baffling, bringing to mind another unworthy Oscar case of Kim Basinger in LA Confidential. Rebecca Hall puts in an almost film-stealing performance as Vicky – she being the one doing all the dramatic heavy lifting; and if an Oscar nod is in order for anyone, it's for Hall.
What's key to the dynamic of Vicky Cristina Barcelona is that it isn't really focused on any one character. Although the movie is titled with the two main women, their story would have, indeed, not taken place if it weren't for the crucial characters of Juan Antonio and Maria Elena. Sometimes that's a great thing in a film, when characters get equal importance (and certainly for Vicky, Cristina, and Juan – equal screen time) and we can decide for ourselves who we would consider most crucial.
If the term "return to form" is to be applied in these recent movie-going times, it's to Woody Allen for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, where he reminds us just how good he can be. He's crafted a witty, elegant, poignant motion picture that is an absolute joy to sit through, breezing by with an enjoyable comedic swiftness, and a film which sits comfortably in his resume as his best work in years.