In his past few movies, Woody Allen may have found a new muse in Scarlett Johansson. But stunning as she may be, she couldn’t perk up the floppy plot of Match Point, and Cassandra’s Dream was downright dull.
When I heard of Johansson’s return for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it sent up some big red flags, and I almost avoided this film altogether on her account. I don’t –er, didn’t– think Allen knew what to do with her. Until now.
Johansson plays one of two American girls (along with the less-than-stellar Rebecca Hall) who visit Spain and fall in love with a real-life Don Juan (Javier Bardem). Ho-hum. But unlike the last few Allen flicks, the rather clichéd sounding plot follows comic, not melodramatic, imperatives. Johansson and Hall both fall madly in love with Bardem’s suave artiste, only to discover that his unbalanced ex-wife is still very much in the picture.
The resulting love triangle sounds pretentious on paper, but the ever-so-unnecessary narrator perfectly deflates what could have rapidly become a rehash of a Truffaut storyline. The narrator is never introduced and has no real relevant character, but fills in all the gaps with condescending and often-ridiculous asides.
The characterizations, too, tend towards the absurd. Johansson shoots sparks right out of the screen when paired with Bardem. She flirts, smiles and cajoles her performance right into the realm of credibility, and Bardem plausibly plays that Euro-trash smooth talker cliché every mother has nightmares about. Both of them let comic timing dictate the nuances of their performances, and the results are utterly hilarious.
But the film doesn’t really belong to Johansson, or even Bardem, for that matter. The often-underestimated Penelope Cruz upstages everyone with her refreshingly overstated performance. She stars as Bardem’s moderately psychotic ex-wife, and her sizzling screen presence really brings the heat to the love triangle (or is it a quadrangle?) that forms the scaffolding of the plot. Cruz pushes every scene to extreme levels of emotionality as she tries to win the love of Bardem (and perhaps even Johansson).
Luckily, Vicky Cristina Barcelona doesn’t peddle some sort of moral at the end. Allen got stuck in a melancholic/pedantic rut for a few years there, and the story of two American girls lost in Europe could have easily wound up as yet another soapbox for Allen’s sermons. This time around, however, he restrains himself and lets the film speak for itself.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona stands as a glorious return to form for Allen—it’s fluffy, sexy, and doesn’t aspire to be anything other than a comedy. The beautiful shots of Catalonia are just icing on the cake.