Saturday, September 6, 2008

From the Archive: "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" Film Review

Film Rating: B-

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Originally published September 6th, 2008

Love is a complex thing, and Woody Allen has been trying to get his head around it for some time now.  His latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is essentially a thesis paper on the topic of love.  It examines many aspects of the subject thoroughly, perhaps a little too thoroughly.  It’s certainly a well written thesis paper, but not all thesis papers are exactly fun to make your way through; like many papers, it is padded out with extraneous details to achieve a greater length. 

Metaphors aside, the film focuses on two friends, Vicky and Cristina (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) who travel to Barcelona for the summer.  Vicky is a firm believer in commitment and monogamy, and is engaged to me married.  Cristina is the polar opposite of Vicky, at least in love; she’s frivolous and doesn’t want commitment.  One night, they meet a painter named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who has just gone through a violent divorce and is desperate for companionship.  Cristina is smitten, but Vicky is hesitant. 

And for the rest of the movie, relationships develop, fall apart, and love is examined thoroughly through the many characters and sub-plots.  Allen makes many good points about love, with each character and relationship representing a different element of the subject.  Sadly, while the ending continues to say poignant things about love, it doesn’t hit the subject home with enough force, and it ends up feeling like an empty experience.

In fact, I have a long list of complaints with the film, but let’s start by talking about the best element; the acting.  Nearly every performance is excellent, with the standout being Rebecca Hall as Vicky.  Hall is virtually an unknown, but her performance makes me anxious to see what she does next.  The character is the most interesting of the bunch, and Hall brings a very realistic quality to Vicky.  In fact, one of my biggest complaints about the film is that she’s underutilized, in favor of a much less exciting performance; more on that later.

Javier Bardem lightens things up from his villainous turn in No Country For Old Men with his performance as Juan Antonio; he too does an incredible job, and makes the character feel multi-dimensional.  Penelope Cruz appears about halfway into the film as Juan’s crazy ex-wife, and is fairly incredible in the role, showing her considerable acting chops.  Her and Bardem’s chemistry is strong and undeniable, and their scenes together are excellent.

Sadly, Scarlett Johansson weakens the whole film with her underwhelming performance as Cristina.  She recites her lines as though reading them for the first time, making some scenes featuring her character feel like screen test footage.  Unfortunately, about halfway through the film, Allen shifts the focus almost entirely to her character.  Bardem and Cruz are also the focus of this part of the movie, but Johansson is the weak link that makes this section feel like a failure. 

This brings me to my main problem with the movie; it’s aimless.  It has a lot of good things to say about love, but without any clear direction.  In the first act, both Vicky and Cristina are featured equally, which makes sense; they are two sides of a coin when it comes to love.  But when the plot drops Vicky out of the picture for at least half an hour, things start to get boring and tedious. 

Vicky seems to be the most important character; she’s the idealist who is learning that love is more complex than she thought.  But Allen focuses on Cristina, who never really learns anything.  As such, it eventually becomes unclear as to what Allen is trying to say about love, making the ending feel empty.  The final scene with Bardem and Cruz is the only part of the ending to really hit home; it’s a clear statement that true love can sometimes be dangerous and risky.  Otherwise, nothing else about the ending is clear.  The thesis paper ends without a strong conclusion.

There’s a host of other problems, including uninspiried cinematography (Barcelona never looked so boring) and a narration that is incredibly annoying.  The characters are strong enough to speak for themselves; a voice-over by a monotone voice doesn’t help.  Overall, however, the excellent performances save the movie from being worthless.  There are some dialogue scenes, especially between Bardem and Hall, or to a lesser extent, Bardem and Cruz that are very rich and entertaining.

Woody Allen’s earlier work this year, Cassandra’s Dream was similarly paced and with performances on the same level of excellence; however, it had a clear focus that made it one of the best films of the first half of the year.  If Vicky Cristina Barcelona had that same clarity, than I would be singing the praises of the film.  Because of these problems, I have a bit of a conundrum in dishing out my final verdict.  I can’t quite dismiss the film, but I can’t completely recommend it either; the scales tip slightly in the favor of recommendation due to fine performances by Hall, Bardem and Cruz.  Overall, this is a rental, but only if you have a tolerance for films with a slower, meditative pace. 

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