Friday, August 29, 2008

Vicky Christina Barcelona Penepole Patricia Javier

Woody Allen's new movie is a delightful trifle. At least on the surface. There's a lot to like about this movie, and not a whole lot to pick at. Take the standard ingredients of a good movie: appealing characters. Check. Beautiful setting. Check. Talented cast. Check. Good writing. Check. Interesting story. Check. This movie has all that.

Now consider what makes a movie great. All of the above plus: standout performance. Check. Absolutely, Penepole Cruz makes the movie. To be honest, I was getting a little sleepy with all the wine, sun, glowing skin, minor conflicts and subplots until Penepole Cruz shows. Have I bored you yet with my proclamation that she is the one woman in the world I would sleep with if I had the chance. Yup, she could turn me. (I mean it worked for Tom Cruise, right?) But I digress. Her performance is riveting. You want more, more, more of this crazy bitch. I would say too that Javier Bardem stands out. I love actors who seem to enjoy themselves in all kinds of roles. In No Country for Old Men he was evil incarnate and here is playboy incarnate, and ironically he holds the moral center of the movie. He is certain about his need for love and affection and for caring about women; all the women around him, though, and Patricia Clarkson (frankly underutilized here) are all somewhat confused about what they want.

So the standout performances are there with Cruz and Bardem, but there is one final element that should be in a great movie: a universal and resonant theme. Here's where I can't decide if this movie makes it. Clearly Allen has something to say about romance ("it's love that can never be"--I think he got that part right), and about all the people in the world (all of us, really, at one point or another) who can never really decide about what they want out of love. Do we want security? Do we want passion? Do we want predictability? Do we want uncertainty and surprise? Do we want to stretch our limits or do we want to comfort and safety? We all want it all and we all want nothing to do with it if it gets too, too messy. All of this is in the movie, to be sure, as the main and minor characters work out their uncertainty. Fair enough, and highly entertaining, but for me, at the end, the stakes just weren't high enough in this film, the neuroses weren't deep enough.

Allen went to Barcelona, but like the characters, he was on vacation. He cast Cruz, but he's no Almadovar when it comes to Spanish intensity. But he tries: the best scene for me was a fight scene between Cruz and Bardem in the street outside a cafe. They are yelling, on the verge of physical violence, and the extras walk by, coached to hardly notice the eruptons, for we are to assume this is the way of love in Spain. In Manhattan, Allen's spiritual home, the psychoanalyzed upper class smother their emotions with Jungian rationalizations and passive aggression. Yet in the best Allen cinema, the tears are real (in Manhattan when Mariel Hemingway (Tracy) says goodbye to Allen (Isaac)--devastating) and break through the intellectual crap. In this movie, notwithstanding the force of Cruz, he is tepid: his sex scenes are from the neck up to emphasize a point that even in our deepest passion, we can't get out of our heads.

But as a summer movie it can't be beat. It's a bitter little pill wrapped in butterscotch candy. It doesn't hurt a bit, yet when summer turns to fall, you might find the warmth of your imperfect everyday love more immediate and real than memories of your "romantic" Spanish summer.

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