Vicky Cristina Barcelona
I know that this is an unpopular opinion, but I generally don't like Woody Allen. His dialogue, as I find it, is awkward, the delivery more akin to the re-telling of a story in another person's words than to the natural flow of speech from the mouth of a person intending to say them. This isn't always the case--Annie Hall, for instance, is one of my favorite movies, but it only lacked the awkwardness of delivery because it starred two people who really do talk like that. Most situations, though, however much crafted by the mind of Woody Allen, are not appropriate circumstances in which to use another actor/ess as a vehicle for the expression of things that only he himself would ever say. For some reason, this bothers me tremendously. I don't find it cute. In fact, it reminds me of why I usually hate performances of Shakespeare--few actors seem to understand how to deliver the lines without moments of pause that make the dialogue awkward and unnatural. It isn't some innovative narrative structure, in which the ongoing monologue of the film slips in and out of the voices of a narrator and whatever character is speaking, though it tries hard to be.
All of that said, Vicky Cristina Barcelona was fantastic, though not for reasons that you would assume from watching the trailer (Scar Jo, murder drama, jealousy, etc.) In fact, the characters of Vicky and Cristina are the least striking or interesting. Penelope Cruz delivers a stunning performance, as the deranged ex-wife of a big hot burly Spanish man (Javier Bardem), whose marriage ended in her stabbing him because their love was missing an unexplained element. She is dramatic and dynamic--her hair always perfectly dissheveled, the anger and heat of her voice spewing fire somehow so precisely that everything around her seems to light up and cast shadows on the rest of the cast. If she was deliberately trying to show how boring and naive white American tourists can be by comparison, she hit the nail on the head.
Rebecca Hall, as Vicky, is bland, except for in a few moments in which Juan Antonio (played by Javier Bardem) charms her into smiling, showing emotion, or not reacting to something with trepidation. Her performance is too deliberate, too acting-school-y in the extremes it attempts to demonstrate. In fact, her conversations with Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are the only ones that I would describe as Woody Allen-esque (in the unbelievable way that I indicated in the first paragraph). The Cristina character is a caricature of the purportedly cultural, bohemian, experimental, polyamorous, and open minded artist seeking interesting friends and lovers to admire her attempts at poetry, photography, blah blah blah, who rides her bike with her boyfriend down rustic trails to the countryside and fancies herself a "European soul," as the film puts it. The character itself is genius because it plays on the stereotype of this type of person so well. Unfortunately, there is not much acting that really happens. One consequence of being Woody Allen's muse is that there are just these long scenes showing Scarlett sitting in some beautiful nature setting with the wind blowing through her hair, the camera panning in and out from her lips and eyes, and the narrator saying for her what she feels. I suppose that it must be this way, because the narrator's observations are much more intelligent and interesting than anything Cristina could generate on her own, though she is at the center of her own universe. I ultimately do not find her great or magnificent or even remotely interesting because she does not play the part of Cristina, she merely sits by while Cristina happens through the eyes of others. There is no torment or longing in the way that Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) experiences it. She's just along for the ride.
One scene in which her wide eyed naivete does succeed, though, is when Juan Antonio's character is introduced, though not shown for a few moments, as there is a flurry and muted conversation about who the handsome man in the red shirt standing by the pillar could be. Her face displays intrigue and adds drama to the moment in which he, a perfect specimen of manhood, appears on the screen. From there, his performance is pretty much seamless, and intensely natural in a way that is only matched by Maria Elena. It is a little too convenient, in a Woody Allen kind of way, that he introduces himself by declaring that he finds life meaningless and love inevitably painful, a sentiment that appeals to Cristina's own perspective on relationships, but he plays out this sentiment by subtly demonstrating his sentimentality and emotional attachment to being a protector (of both his new girlfriend and his ex-wife) when Maria Elena returns. Juan Antonio becomes the center of a deep entanglement. He draws others to him by his heat and passion. The sad, tortured, complicated and hot artist is somewhat of a cliche, but Javier Bardem plays the character as if he is the only man in the world worthy of it.
My biggest criticism is that, ultimately, a film so much about raw emotion did not need beautiful people to sustain it. The attractiveness of the cast kind of cheapens it--I'd much rather see something in which the two American tourists are more ordinary, making their seduction by an enigmatic Spanish artist even more compelling and romantic.
It felt like a lot of the personal details about Vicky and Cristina had been edited out. Why do we never see either woman's life in the U.S.? Why do all of the vestiges of Vicky's (eventually hated) old lifestyle appear in Barcelona when a flashback to a company Christmas party would have displayed the normalcy characterizing life in New York with her boring fiance. Honestly, why would someone interesting enough to pursue a graduate degree in "Catalan identity" want a house in the Hamptons? This is why I find these sorts of characters boring and unbelievable--their choices and aspects of their identity are too deliberate, too conveniently chosen to make the story work. The extraordinary nature of accidental events should provide enough interest and spontaneity without having to doctor plot elements.