Vicky Cristina Barcelona

"It's a new day for Woody Allen."

(Or is it the same day? Hang on, we'll figure it out..)

So proclaimed the headlines on high upon the release of his dour, very un-Woody Match Point just a scant two years ago. The then-seventy year old director found himself in a minor spotlight, after a five year lack of critical interest following the lauded Sweet and Lowdown. During this time, the director could be found fumbling around with his old familiar modes, turning out disappointingly uninspired films such as Small Time Crooks and Hollywood Ending. But Allen, having decades ago grown accustomed to the highs and lows of a life in the movie business, took the accolades in stride, seeming not particularly hell-bent on keeping up the trend. A pair of comparably disposable follow-ups (Scoop and Cassandra's Dream) left his so-called resurgence in possible jeopardy, with more than a few wondering if it had in fact been a premature diagnosis, Match Point being the last gasp of the once great director. But, as ever, Woody just kept working. Now, Vicky Cristina Barcelona has arrived, ready to be judged. And Woody, done with London but not with Europe, flies us to Spain.

At the start, a narrator's bracingly pedestrian voice guides us into the story of Vicky and Cristina, a pair of American friends traveling to Barcelona for equally insignificant reasons to stay with family friends (a nervous Patricia Clarkson and her husband, Kevin Dunn (the guy from Ghostbusters!) Maybe I'm just sentimental (surely, I am) but I couldn't help thinking that the choice of narrator was a concrete example of Woody's films suffering from him removing himself. I hope not every future Woody Allen film will by necessity be devoid of screen time for Woody Allen (you couldn't even give him a Spanish accent, Woody?) The drama calmly kicks in when a hunky native artist, Juan Antonio, in his plain and charmingly Spanish way, propositions them to join him for a weekend of kicks and sightseeing. And sex. He says, as open and honest as an angel.
The pair are torn. Vicky, engaged to a New York professional named Doug, scoffs and sneers, rebuking Juan Antonio with a venomous zeal. But Cristina, unattached and more breezy and open than Vicky, already partially seduced by the romance of the Spanish countryside, agrees. This moment both sets up the dramatic hinge of the film and reveals to us the essences of the two leads. Before we are through, Allen will have sent both of these women and their dearly held values on a long ride. Both women will seek out happiness, find it, reject it, and then go seeking again. And both will learn what so many often do from a trip to a foreign land: that there is so much to see, and to learn.

From the outset, Allen is in new territory, melding the successful dramatic tone of Match Point with an air of happiness (something which was lacking profoundly in that film.) Even at its most painful depths, Vicky Cristina Barcelona finds a bit of joy and hope in its longings. Much as his idol Bergman once did (compare The Seventh Seal and Fanny and Alexander,) Allen has progressed from dour drama to a joyful and comic heartache. Also as in Match Point, Woody's alter ego, present for years in most of his movies, is nowhere to be found. Instead, he seems to have doled out his personal quirks in bits and pieces, perhaps finally realizing that his own nebbish nature and habits are a lot to swallow coming all from one character.

His two leads, Vicky and Cristina, convey the essence of two very elemental female counterpoints. Both women are deeply flawed. One too open, one too closed. One thinks she has it all figured out, one knows she has no idea, but is hardly wise. And, as Allen quickly shows us, both can be had by the same man. Vicky and Cristina, though they exude personal confidence and self-assurance, are indeed very confused. Allen uses Juan Antonio as a means to show the different ways both of these women can be perceived. Vicky's initial appeal to Juan Antonio is her resistance. When this has evaporated, she is shown to be, in fact, quite insecure and even desperate. Whereas Cristina, more wild and adventurous, devolves from playfully sexual and exciting to unfulfilled and jealous. In both cases, perceptions change. "Yes," says Juan Antonio, taking it all in stride, "life is short, and painful." But you, like every man, want what you cannot have; both of these women in one.

When all is said and done (and, for once, more is done than said,) in a way it's the antithesis of a Woody Allen film. After years of talking and talking, he finally says, "the talky guy is a tool," (Vicky finding a new dissatisfaction with her now very boring husband to be.) Is he? In many ways, yes. But is the grass really greener, now or ever? The ability of the hunky guy to make women topsy-turvy might seem out Allen's league, but his story is convincing. And lest you think he is focusing solely on the intellectual inadequacies of women, Juan Antonio gets his due turn to be upended. This task is assigned to Penelope Cruz, who plays Juan Antonio's unstable ex-wife Maria Elena with bewitching electricity. Bardem and Cruz shine here, brilliantly enforcing the emotions of the now-obsolete Americans, who, after being so keenly observed, have now resumed the role of spectators in a foreign land. (Speaking of obsolete Americans, Bardem and Cruz are part of an increasingly large group of Spanish-born actors in ultra-high demand for American movies. Does it ever work the other way around?)

This all may sound very sophisticated and ponderous, but it isn't. In Woody's hands the story is clear, and very emotional and compelling. Give him major props for finding and retaining Scarlett Johannsen, who has brought a much-needed youthfulness to his latest films. Rebecca Hall, too, is a fantastic choice, practically stealing the movie in a part that might have gone to Barbara Hershey 20 years ago. Basically, everyone drinks wine and does exactly what you would want them to do in a movie about American women in Spain: make love and look at pretty buildings. But not without some hang-ups. Maria Elena calls it "chronic dissatisfaction," and nearly everyone in this film suffers from it.

The film finishes without any spectacular reveals or gut-punches (excepting perhaps one final moment of hysteria,) and we exit, ready again to bring down our gavel in judgment of Allen's latest effort. And we find that Woody has hit all the right notes. That he has crafted another film, as he did with Match Point, that can hold it's own with all the critical darlings of old (Crimes & Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, etc.) Surely, these new films are as good now as those were then. They are less stuffy, less dated. They are, in more ways than one, very young.

Yes, his "resurgence" is real. But, mostly, the "resurgence" is false. Allen, who by my count has made 37 films, cannot be evaluated in terms of resurgences and disappearances. Maybe Cassandra's Dream is better than Another Woman. Maybe Scoop is better than A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy. And maybe, finally, it doesn't matter. Let's just all let Woody Allen be Woody Allen. And in twenty or thirty years, when he is gone and all we have is his memory and his films, we can get down to the real business of anointing him one of the great American filmmakers of his time. But for now, let's just let him work.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona, like so much great art, wants us to question our lives. Ourselves. To embrace our yearnings. They are perhaps not so unspeakable, it says. But be prepared for what they bring with them. Memories, like everything worth having, come with a price. Maybe happiness can be found on either side of these great moments. But the baggage of life's greatest and most revealing moments is the destructive proposition of more to come.

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