Film review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona
A return to form for Woody Allen? Think again, says Fred Rowson
It's never been hard to find faults with Woody Allen's work. However, over the years, he has been consistently reliable when it comes to quips, wordplay and one liners. It is, therefore, shocking to hear the inane voiceover that is slathered all over Vicky Cristina Barcelona claim that "Vicky had no tolerance for pain, and no lust for combat" and that "If you asked [Cristina] what it was she was gambling her emotions on to win, she would not have been able to say." These lines are the dregs that the scriptwriter confines to his notebook, the scraps of character study that end up in the bin. Yet, not only are they in the film; they come to stand as our introduction to the eponymous heroines and, shockingly, Allen thinks this is good enough. He continues in this manner, inserting little asides in which the characters' actions are summed up in a brief speech from the unknown narrator, during which I was forced to wonder why Allen could not - with easy economy - merely have shown the events of a trip to Oviedo, a flirtatious game of footsy, or the work of a talented photographer.
I have enjoyed and defended some of Allen's most reviled films - Stardust Memories and Match Point. This, however, marks a new threshold of poor quality for the director. Even with his worst work, there has been a pleasure in tracing his thematic interests from film to film, and watching them develop and, sometimes, mature. Vicky Christina Barcelona, however, comes seemingly out of nowhere, and disappears back as quickly. It is said that many actors long to be in an Allen film, due to his no-nonsense approach to directing. It is also true that, after having worked with the director, many of these actors - Johansson, Cruz, Bardem - have publicly defended the director's reputation, both personal and artistic. This is, perhaps, because Allen's films depend so heavily on performance, sometimes above all else (David Thompson, for example, once wrote that they were shot with all the style of a TV drama which is, I think, a little unfair). What is hard to understand, though, is why all of these actors can't acknowledge the way in which the roles that Allen writes these days have fewer dimensions than a greeting card. All of the players in Vicky Cristina Barcelona throw themselves enthusiastically into their parts - Johansson and Cruz especially - but gone are the Annie Hall days of Allen's serious interest in the mechanics of a relationship; Johansson is cast in the role that she perfected in Lost In Translation, but Allen adds a little promiscuity for good measure, and Cruz's role leaves her Oscar win as a complete mystery. She plays it well, but the Academy Award success of her lovelorn eccentric is like Michael Caine winning an Oscar for A Muppet Christmas Carol - he was funny in that movie and, indeed, he had a really good go at it, but at the end of the day, even Scrooge surrounded by talking animals has more depth than Cruz's grumpy-cum-psychotic goddess.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona's ultimate problem is its laziness. The voiceover stinks of something added at the last minute, and the characters have such frustrating potential, but Allen refuses to push them any further than caricature. The saddest thing is, though, that even after the debacle that is Vicky Cristina Barcelona there still seems to be some aura around Allen, some left over credit from the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s that keeps nagging - perhaps he'll get back to what he was. It's unlikely that he ever will, but we can be sure, at least, that after Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he can't get any worse.