Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) / Comedy-Romance

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some sexuality, language and a scene of violence
Running time: 96 min

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Messina, Kevin Dunn, Pablo Schreiber, Zak Orth, Christopher Evan Welch (narrator)
Director: Woody Allen

Screenplay: Woody Allen
Review published August 18, 2008

Woody Allen (Scoop, Melinda and Melinda) borrows a page or two from the style of Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim in making one of his best films in many years.  His fourth straight film outside of the U.S. sees him at his most assured, as his blend of sophisticated relationships and cultured characterizations plays out well among the artistic peoples to inhabit the cities and towns of Spain.  An attractive cast, plenty of gorgeous guitar melodies, wine and Spanish cuisine, breathtaking architecture and vistas, and some of the more interesting artwork thrown on a canvas makes Allen's film a picturesque travelogue in and of itself.  That it also contains some very complex looks at the messiness of relationships could only come through the eyes of maturity, elevating a fun romp into a very heady dessert film that generates a great deal of increasing interest as we wonder just what roads can lead to happiness for all involved, if indeed there is even a happy road from which to choose from.

Vicky (Welch, The Prestige) and Cristina (Johansson, The Other Boleyn Girl) are two American students who happen to be good friends staying in Barcelona.  On their final days there, they are approached by a handsome artist, Jose (Bardem, No Country for Old Men), with a proposition to come out to a distant town in order to enjoy the view of a sculpture, some wine, a little music, and lovemaking -- between the three of them.  Impulsive free spirit Cristina is for the adventure, but more sensible Vicky, engaged to an equally sensible man back home (Messina, Made of Honor), is more than a little put off by the proposal.  She tags along to keep her friend from getting into too much trouble, only to find that the man she initially rebuked is a little more attractive in her eyes once she finds a deep sense of passion within him.  They consummate their feelings only for her to go back to her more practical side, but Vicky finds herself a changed woman, no longer able to quite fit in to the mold she once embraced wholeheartedly before the tryst.  Meanwhile, Cristina becomes the object of Jose's attention, and the two become an actual item, only Vicky's half-hoping desires and Jose's ex-wife, the tempestuous and psychotic Maria Elena (Cruz, Volver), complicate a love quadrangle that grows increasingly more complicated with each passing day.

Although there is a serious undercurrent to Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen keeps the tone always just on the right side of comedy, even going for broader laughs at times with the over-the-top performance (and refreshingly so) from Penelope Cruz as the jealous ex with a screw loose.  While the film goes down some paths that might seem familiar in design, there is an air of unpredictability that allows the story to find its own path, as the dynamics of the relationship between the four main people and their circle of close friends brings forth new wrinkles.  Allen's main theme explores the difference in relationships based on comfort vs. those based on passions, and the complications that arise when there is an imbalance of one over the other.  Allen even profoundly questions, even when the scales tip evenly in both directions, whether people will still be able to maintain the balance, as passion is a romantic notion that often burns itself out over time.

If there's an answer to how to be content in a relationship of love, Allen provides no firm answers other than to state that love is a messy, complex thing.  It's a cynical proposition to state that relationships will never be perfect, as the thoughts in the mind and feelings in the heart ebb and flow on a day-to-day basis, and once a taste of what's missing enters the equation, what's already in the mix seems incomplete.  As Cristina finds out, just because what she has isn't all she wants or needs, what she pursues may not be either.  Cristina does manage to find a happy balance, but at her core, it's just not enough to sustain her, and one wonders if anything really could.  Vicky doesn't want to be, like her friend Judy (Clarkson, No Reservations), stuck in a loveless marriage with a man that made a certain sense at the time, while Jose and Maria Elena have all the love in the world for one another, and nothing they do while together makes any sort of sense. 

It's difficult to resolve that such pessimistic quandaries could be termed funny or romantic, and yet Allen is able to deliver his arguments on all fronts and still keep the film engagingly humorous while taking his characters to heart.  The allure of an outside partner has been an Allen staple throughout his film career (and personal life to some extent), often coming to the conclusion that, once forbidden fruit is tasted, the taster can never quite be satisfied again, not willing to give up the comfort of the familiar and not content to continue on the path of predetermination.  It's the desire for something new that drives the quest, but often, striving for a lasting happiness only brings about perpetual heartbreak.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona may not rank among Allen's best, but it is his best in some time, perhaps in two decades, and unlike Match Point, it isn't completely covering ground that he has done before.  French New Wave film aficionados will not find the film to be delving into anything new, but it is new for Allen, and unlike most films made by American filmmakers, who typically have a penchant for coming up with some sort of resolution by the end.  Allen's film ends very much like its beginning, with people still on the search for a state of lasting happiness that can never truly be found, even when it seems like it tantalizingly presents itself before our eyes continuously throughout our lives. 

 Qwipster's rating:

©2008 Vince Leo