Vicky Cristina Barcelona is like a sumptuous buffet, decadent in more ways than one. The players are sexy beyond the telling of it (even Scarlett Johansson, whose appeal I definitely understand, even if I'm kind of immune to it), the cinematography is gorgeous, taking voracious bites out of Spain's scenery and the music is repetitive and sensuous. You wouldn't think that all of these elements would make for such a cerebral movie-going experience. A question that's going to be lingering in the mind of any attentive movie-goer is "How cerebral is too cerebral? Is this film too cerebral?" I don't think so, but I can definitely understand how people would go there.
Let me back up for a moment to the film's premise, which finds old college buddies Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) vacationing in Spain. The trip serves as an escape mechanism for both women. Cristina recently spent a good chunk of her time making a short film that she ultimately hated and is looking for new direction, while Vicky is engaged to Doug (the very underrated Chris Messina), a man she only has lukewarm feelings for. While on the trip, along comes the almost inhumanly suave Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who offers to take them to the Spanish island of Oviedo where they will make love, drink wine, etc. Vicky is reluctant for obvious reasons, but Cristina wants to go. It's ridiculous, yes. Yet only believable in these circumstances. Who else but Javier Bardem would a stranger have to look like to sweep two women off to a foreign island? Of course, Juan Antonio is still in love with his ex-wife, the fiery and passionate Maria Elena (a phenomenal Penelope Cruz). And you can guess what happens next...
Or maybe you won't. This film (at least for me) was not as much about plot and narrative structure as it was about watching these gorgeous people fall in and out of lust, climb in and out of bed with one another. Say what you will about Woody Allen (and people often do) but he always crafts incredibly interesting characters--especially female characters. I cannot think of another male writer/director who consistently creates interesting female characters. One of the film's weaknesses (?) is that it is weighed down by very ponderous narration, which at times feels intrusive. Narration is a tricky device, one that should be used carefully and precisely. Here, the narration is very akin to that in Little Children. You wonder if the film can stand without it, and you're almost certain that it can. Scarlett Johansson continues to occupy her position as Woody Allen's muse-du-jour. She was fine here. Much as she is just fine in most of her roles (I think she's incredibly overrated in general). Regarding relative newcomer Rebecca Hall, I'd have to see more before I can decide whether I'm passing. There was something grating and obnoxiously self-aware about this performance, and I can't decide if Hall is to blame, or the way the character is written, or some combination of the two. Finally, Penelope Cruz proves once again (after All About My Mother and Volver) that she truly shines when acting in her own language. But although many of her lines are spoken in Spanish, even those delivered in English carry the bite and sharpness of Maria Elena's insanity and passion. Consider a scene in which Maria Elena calls Cristina on the fact that she's been vacationing in Spain for some time, yet still speaks virtually no Spanish. She's intimidating, forceful. And, when she hears Cristina speaking in Chinese, she is very unimpressed, all of which Cruz plays beautifully.
Woody Allen has created another well-written comedy-drama, rife with witty, verbose dialogue and characters who like to live in their heads (well, most of them anyway). Will VCB go down in history as the most memorable Allen film? Probably not. But it's a nice addition to the pantheon anyway.