Often the characters in Vicky Cristina Barcelona sound like they’re channeling Woody Allen, as they do in all his films. It’s either going to be annoying or feel giddily familiar. His is a distinct voice, a witty stuttering affect that trips and falls over an entertaining neurotic monologue. For me, I’m of the giddily familiar crowd. I smile as soon as I recognize the patter he has perfected over decades of filmmaking.
The familiar Woody Allen themes arise in Vicky—cheating spouses, ruminations on art, attempts at existentialism. And the same archetypal characters also return, the smooth-talking Lothario, the restless young muse, and discontented people everywhere.
It was a relief that Allen didn’t cast himself in the male lead. It was a stretch that a nebbish bespectacled neurotic could seduce everyone, from Mia Farrow to Julia Roberts. Although, he did hook up with Mia in real life. And it became even more ridiculous in his more recent films. It was far better to cast Javier Bardem as a convincing smooth-talking artist as his alter-ego.
Scarlett Johanssoon, who plays the direction-less Cristina, was like a lovely stage prop. And Rebecca Hall’s Vicky was like a generic Allen character, a water-downed version of Annie Hall that he’d been trying to recreate through dozens of films. Ostensibly, the film is supposed to be about these two opposite friends. One is carefree but lost and the other is happy with her impending life as a Long Island housewife. Yet neither character is fully fleshed out. Thank the film gods for the other two leads.
Javier Bardem and especially Penelope Cruz, who play passionate painters, tore through Allen’s voice and made the dialog their own. Cruz in particular delivered her lines with ferocity, an anomalous welcome disruption in the measured self-reflection of self-absorbed characters.
The movie is a sort of breakthrough for Woody. He’s moved beyond the angst of intellectual middle class drama over infidelity and matured into a philosophical view of faithfulness and monogamy. His message, via Javier, is that life is short; why shouldn’t we love freely? This new view is reinforced through the character of Javier’s poet father. He refuses to publish or publicly share his work in any way as a protest against the world for refusing to embrace love.
Though Allen himself has come to reconcile himself to be detached from life’s dramas, none of his characters have evolved past where they were at the beginning of the movie.
Vicky is still looking for someone to fill her wanderlust. Javier and Cruz’s characters continue their volatile on-again, off-again relationship. And an old poet ages another day, still clutching his precious poems.
It’ll be interesting to see how Allen’s next film moves the characters beyond themselves into the open. Now that their eyes have been opened, how will Woody Allen help them proceed?