Many critics touted “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” as Woody Allen’s return to quality filmmaking after a few clear misses. I have to say I was with them, at least for the first half of the film. But that’s when Allen’s story started to undo everything I had bought into. His sharp locational eye beautifully captures the Spanish architecture and countryside and his good-looking characters lay the groundwork for a promising story. But the movie is never as funny or as clever as it tries to be and it ultimately falls apart in its nonsensical third act.
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a romantic comedy that takes a rather cynical look at romance. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and her friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are spending the summer in Barcelona. Vicky holds what you might call a more traditional look at relationships. She is grounded, sure of what she wants, and engaged to a preppy young business man back home. Cristina is somewhat of a free spirit, prone to dive into love and life headfirst regardless of the consequences. One of the more compelling things about the friends is that they are so opposite at first. Hall and Johansson have some great moments together bouncing their own perspectives and idiosyncrasies off each other. They start off as genuinely interesting and believable best friends.
Their summer takes an interesting turn when they meet Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem), a struggling artist who invites the girls to spend the weekend with him in the city of Oviedo. Vicky is against the idea but Cristina sees it as intriguing. The stronger spirit wins out and the three take off. Over the weekend the relationships between the three grow more complex. But things go from complex to nutty when Juan Antonio’s neurotic ex-wife María Elena (Penelope Cruz) enters the picture. All four of the main stars are fantastic. Cruz, who won the Best Supporting Actress for the role, gives the movie some energy just as it was starting to lag. But even she is undermined by Allen’s off-the-wall final act which seems to make everything earlier feel disingenuous.
For me the biggest casualty of Allen’s uneven story is the unique difference between Vicky and Cristina. By the end of the film I didn’t feel that were that unique at all. Even when Cristina becomes involved in an absurd love triangle, the Vicky character, who I thought was more grounded and level-headed, responds in a way that seemed inconsistent with who she has been. Some may attribute that to an evolution of her character but I think the movie goes on to show that she isn’t as deep of a character as she appears to be at first. I also didn’t find the film nearly as funny as others. Sure it has a few dry quirky moments, but it’s real attempt at humor falls flat particularly in the second half of the film. This truly is a tale of two movies in one.
Some have felt the movie promotes the pursuit of love and happiness and the idea that romance may be fleeting but it’s worth the effort. I feel it looks at love through a very pessimistic and sometimes skewed lens. There’s no denying that “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a beautiful movie. The gorgeous Barcelona sights and sounds and the attention to the culture creates the perfect environment for what could have been. For me “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” wasn’t the summer to remember. Although it might have been if the second half of the film was as good as the first.