Friday, August 15, 2008

Woody's European vacation

Posted By on Fri, Aug 15, 2008 at 12:44 PM

Livin' la vida loca in Spain

By Matt Brunson





STARS Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson

A ménage a trois between the luscious, Olympic-worthy team of Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz is one of the various expressions of intimacy found in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but viewers shouldn't attend the movie expecting to see explicitness on the order of, say, Shortbus or Henry & June. After all, the film's writer-director is Woody Allen, and he's always been much more interested in exposing the intricacies of the heart than the pleasures of the flesh.

Yet therein lies the major problem with the picture: Allen has basically told a tale that depends on carnal knowledge as much as anything else, and the soft-pedaling of the harsher aspects of the story makes Vicky Cristina Barcelona feel, well, as if it were made by a 72-year-old filmmaker who's tentatively stepped outside his comfort zone. The end result is an interesting misfire, and one whose overlapping themes might resonate more strongly on a second viewing.

Rebecca Hall and Johansson, the female co-leads in The Prestige, here play pragmatic Vicky and impulsive Cristina, two Americans vacationing in the lovely Spanish city when they're propositioned by the seductive, sensual artist Juan Antonio (Bardem) to join him for a weekend of food, wine and sex. Eventually, both women do succumb to his charms (albeit at different points), only to find matters growing more complicated once his fiery ex-wife Maria Elena (Cruz, stealing the show) re-enters his life.

Allen can hardly be accused of phoning in this script: The movie stumbles over itself while bringing fresh life to a number of issues, among them our need for familial security (at whatever cost) versus our desire for hedonistic experimentation; the ability of one's artistic impulses to be awakened by a foreign culture (this speaks as much about Allen as it does budding photographer Cristina, with Allen filming exclusively overseas since leaving Manhattan for England for 2005's Match Point); the dangers inherent in an unchecked creative lifestyle; and the viewpoint that sex in itself need not be a shallow vice but rather a passageway into deeper understanding between people. The notions presented on screen are worthy of discussion, but I just wish Allen had given them more of a chance to be heard. Instead, there's a reticence about the film that stops even the most interesting scenarios short. The hoary show biz axiom may declare, "Always leave them wanting more," but in this case, I wish Allen hadn't kept us hanging.

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