By Karina Longworth
To be fair: "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" may not need my defense. Since its debut at Cannes, it has garnered some of the most positive reviews of Woody Allen’s late career. But it’s always with that caveat: it’s the best he’s done for us lately. At this point, it seems like the critical class is expected to disclaim their vitriol or praise, no matter what Allen actually puts on the screen, or which way it swings. Is it good? Well, it’s not as good as "Annie Hall," but it’s not bad. Is it bad? Well, it’s not as bad as "Anything Else," but it’s not good. As you might have guessed, I think Woody Allen has produced some work over the past 15 years (since the Soon-Yi “scandal”, which more or less dovetailed with the consensus opinion that his “best years” were long behind him) that is worthy of more serious consideration. But even if I didn’t think the movies deserved it, the sheer laziness that the movies seem to inspire in critics would almost give me enough incentive to passionately defend them.
To go micro before going macro: the worst thing that you can say about "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is that it’s exceedingly pleasant, that it has the overall effect of a late summer, late afternoon nap. And sure, maybe, if you were inclined, it would be possible to write it all off as soft core bicurious semi-erotica (and full-on bicurious travel erotica). But I sense that Allen––if no one else––earnestly believes he’s doing more, that even in his lightest mode, he’s deeply concerned with the nagging mysteries of human relationships. Might it be creepy-old-man-ism that requires him to ask two beautiful actresses to kiss each other in an attempt to figure these mysteries out? It might be, but Woody Allen’s been a creepy old man since he was 35. To convince me that he’s totally lost it, you’re going to have to come up with better evidence than that.
The plot of "Vicky Cristina" –– like those of "Melinda and Melinda" and "Match Point," the two Late Allen films it most resembles –– is barely more than a mechanism on which to hang Allen’s endless skepticism. Vicky (Rebecca Hall, a British girl doing naive but well-meaning Upper West Side academic) is going to Spain for the summer to stay with a family friend and work on a grad school thesis. It’s Vicky’s last summer before she gets married, and where another girl might be a bit more concerned with making the most of the last months of her sexual freedom, Vicky seems more preoccupied with the notion that the thesis represents her last chance at intellectual self-indulgence before her very sensible fiancee knocks her up and all vestiges of her identity as an independent woman must be put away. Vicky’s last minute escort on the trip is Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), a wild child ball of blonde hair and bad decisions, who tags along to Barcelona to escape a bad break-up with hopes of finding her calling as an old-world romantic-creative.
Thanks mainly to Cristina’s predatory eyes, the girls soon meet a painter, Juan Antonio, who they’ve heard has a torrid history with an ex-wife (Penelope Cruz). They let this smoldering artist at least 15 years their senior fly them to his hometown of Oviedo regardless of Vicky’s objections, and there the eager-to-bed Cristina comes down with food poisoning, leaving Vicky fall into Juan Antonio’s arms. But once the trio returns to Barcelona, order is restored: Juan and Cristina embark on the flagrantly cliche February-July muse-master relationship that always seemed in the cards, and Vicky dives back into her work and wedding plans. The status quo is interrupted once again when Juan Antonio’s ex-wife Maria-Elena re-enters the picture, she and Cristina first fight over and then figure out a way to happily share the lucky Spaniard, and, as she continues to be haunted by a night that seems “unreal”, Vicky starts to wonder if her entire life plan is ill-conceived.
If this sounds familiar, well, maybe we’ve hit on one of Late Allen’s easiest targets for criticism. Over and over again in this late career stretch, he’s rehearsing variations on the same preccupations: romance is fleeting, meaning and passion are both subjective and fluid; fate and luck are, in practice, basically the same thing; there are two types of fear: fear to act on our desires, and fear to do anything but. As Bardem’s character puts it at one point: “The trick is to enjoy life, and accept that it has no meaning.” This could be a direct quote from a number of recent Allen interviews, and it’s a sign of how seriously he’s invested in the essential existential question of the material: If none of it matters anyway, is it best to live impulsively and suffer disappointment, or take the safe, no thrills route, forsaking the manic highs in order to avoid the lowest lows?
Another potentially valid, but only if unexamined, points of criticism almost always directed at Late Allen: in order to explore his pet themes from a distance, he seems to want to make his characters as shallow as possible. Speaking their lines with a flatness that almost approaches a read-aloud from high school English class, crowded into going through the motions of the dictates of an all-seeing narrator, the actors’ characterizations are, almost by default, mainly surface. Cruz has to do little more than look comfortable in the markedly “ethnic,” bag lady slut chic in which she’s dressed in order to put across Maria-Elena as an icon of the Scary/Sexy Exotic; Johansson, done up like a summer Gap ad loosely based on "…And God Created Woman," basically just has to show up and Allen has the Narcissist Heartbreaker he needs in order to define, by contrast, Hall’s Frustrated Realist.
(For all of the prudish questioning of the propriety of the Allen/ScarJo relationship, Vicky Cristina is evidence that Allen’s leering is at least a means to an end. Despite the limits of her character, Johansson is more present on screen here than I’ve seen her since "Lost in Translation." He may love her, but up til now, Woody Allen has misused her. Here, she plays her age and, for the first time I can think of, a character whose inner and outer lives both seem organically compatible with the unconscious carnality the actress herself exudes. And someday entire grad school thesis will be written about the way Allen shoots every sex scene that she’s in, in extreme, soft focus closeup on her head, letting the camera drift to concentrate on her blonde hair spilling out of control to consume the frame.)
Rather than fault Allen for blatantly eschewing a realism that I don’t think was ever on his agenda to begin with, I think there’s something interesting about the falseness of it all–the unnecessary, didactic narration, the cliche personalities crashing into one another, and the very, very minor fissures that result. His point is taken: nothing ultimately, means anything, but in the moment, we forget that, and become convinced that inconsequential matters mean the world. "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" may be frivolous, but under the surface there’s a serious pondering of how the most frivolous things can temporarily cloud brains and hold otherwise reasonable people hostage, of how even a momentary giving over to impulse can slip an unignorable pea under the mattress of the best laid plans, of how sometimes functioning facades are shattered by a single slip of judgement over the course of a single night.
Above all else, "Vicky Cristina" reveals that Allen is developing a late career style of distant, extremely expository satire of romantic givens. The American girls, smart and experienced though they think they are and even might be, are reduced to fools by their attraction to the Spanish painter. They remain consumed with the question of what their dalliances mean, convinced they must mean something, even after he’s told them repeatedly that nothing means anything. This is insanity defined—holding onto faith that something is true when all evidence would mark it as false–and it’s this lust-bred insanity that’s the more precise Allen theme than the oft-cited neorosis. In "Vicky Cristina," as the events play out in a tone pitched about ten degrees closer to comedy than tragedy, Allen mocks his girls for their illusions–harshly, at times, but not without sympathy. He’s been there.
Call it autopilot, call it barrel scraping, but I believe he’s still really baffled about various unsolvable mysteries of human nature. The benefit of age may be that he’s finally boiled his issues down from prickly, all-encompassing nuerosis, into an almost elegantly restricted package of major questions about human nature that, after nearly 73 years on the planet, he still can’t figure out. And even if these later films themselves are inconsistently moving, I’m touched by the gesture itself, the taking stock of one’s own life-long search for meaning, the mistakes made along the way, and the frustrations of coming up empty. Whether hidden under sultry sun or cold British class conflict or the pretenses of New York intelligencia, there are traces in all of Allen’s later films of unforgiving moral comedowns, as could only be conjured by someone whose own moral stumbles have gone largely unforgiven.