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Friday, March 6, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a curious film, and not just in the sexual meaning of the term. The movie is simultaneously earnest and yet satirical of the very feelings it achingly confronts. It is uneven and unnerving, alienating and still engaging, boring in parts but marked by fits of overwhelming passion and excitement. The movie makes you feel sympathy for people who do unforgivably bad things and never flinches from the fact that they are being bad and yet leaves you rooting for them all the way to the end. In short, it is a film about life and the folly of love.

The movie tells the story of Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina's (Scarlett Johansson) summer in Spain (guess what town they stay in?). A clumsy voice-over narration begins the movie by informing us that Vicky, a Masters student in Catalan Identity, is someone "who knows what she wants" and has found it in her fiance Doug. Cristina, according to the narrator, is a struggling short-film maker who just knows what she doesn't want. This narration persists throughout the film in a mostly annoying fashion. Even the sound of the narrator's voice is off-putting, never quite comical, not overly serious. It is uninteresting but distinctive enough not to be bland. It is disconcerting, possibly on purpose.

While sightseeing the two friends are approached by a painter named Jose Antonio (Javier Bardem) who bluntly propositions them, inviting them to join him for a weekend in his hometown, during which he hopes to sleep with them both. Close-buttoned Vicky is offended by the idea, but dragged along by the flirtatious Cristina. Ironically, it is Vicky who first sleeps with the painter. She eventually backs away from an affair, and Cristina instead becomes involved with Jose Antonio.

From here the movie threatens to fall into the terribly cliche idea of American girls broadening themselves in Europe, learning so much about life in the process. I confess I didn't trust Woody Allen enough to thwart this trope, and so I found the first half of this movie rather boring. But then Penelope Cruz bursts onto the screen.

Cruz's performance, for which she was recently presented an Academy Award, is frenetic, insane, frightening, and outrageously sexy. Cruz is hamming it up, but she's supposed to be, and she's doing it incredibly well. Watching her, you perfectly understand how a man would both want to be with her and be as far away from her as possible. Her presence shakes things up so thoroughly, and in unexpected ways, that by itself it saves the movie from tediousness.

Cruz is playing Jose Antonio's ex-wife, a brilliant but deeply troubled artist who has just attempted suicide by an overdose of pills. Jose Antonio allows her to stay with him and Cristina, and the three of them share an uneasy acquaintance which blossoms into a surprisingly successful sexual triangle.

Meanwhile, Vicky's fiance travels to Spain so he and Vicky can be married in Barcelona. Vicky goes through with the wedding but is obviously having second thoughts, and in a scene where Cristina describes her trysts her awe and longing are palpable. Hall does a remarkable job in this movie in establishing a skeptical, withdrawn woman and then showing her defenses slowly come tumbling down while insecurity puts up a last desperate struggle in the name of fidelity. Hall's performance is extraordinary, second only to Cruz's.

Unfortunately, Scarlett Johansson is nowhere near as gifted an actress as Cruz and Hall. Her attempts to seem reflective and thoughtful are unconvincing. Her character is written to be slightly neurotic in spite of her beauty and appeal to men, and it's just awkward seeing her try to play the Diane Keaton/Mia Farrow part. She's just not there in terms of skill. Incredibly, she even has a hard time playing sexy. The much-ballyhooed scene where she and Cruz kiss is surprisingly sterile and lifeless.

I have heard complaints about the lack of a resolution to the movie, but I think those are short-sighted. I was pleasantly surprised at the eventfulness of the movie's last few moments. There is a lot there to think about, and the movie's closing shot of Vicky and Cristina is a classic, especially for the look on Hall's face.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a winning film, which is perhaps mislabeled as a comedy. There is little to laugh at, but it is indeed a tale of the human folly. For all that, and two great female performances, it gets 8.4 out of 10.

Next? I think I've got Burn After Reading coming in the mail. I decided not to see Watchmen tonight and I don't know if I'll get to it anytime soon.

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