I was having a difficult time figuring out what to say about Woody Allen’s latest endeavor, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). The director has produced several of my favorite films, and his 1970’s and 80’s output contains numerous acclaimed classics including Annie Hall, Love and Death and Crimes and Misdemeanors. However, Allen’s recent films have contained more misses than hits (2005’s Match Point being a notable exception). My gut response here is ambivalence as there are many enjoyable moments that never gel into a cohesive narrative that I really care about.
The title is derived from the names of two of the main characters and the movie’s locale. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are best friends vacationing for the summer in Spain. They play as foils for each other with Vicky being conservative and overly analytic fashioned after Allen’s best personal depictions while Cristina is more of a free spirit willing to experiment while trying to figure out what she wants in life. Soon after arriving, they encounter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who is the stereotype of a flamboyant Spanish artist wishing to bed both women.
I was wondering if I did not have to review the Vicky Cristina Barcelona would I even have thought much about it a few days after viewing. The answer is a qualified “yes” specifically due to Penelope Cruz’s performance. She plays Juan Antonio’s ex-wife Maria Elena who reappears in his life complicating the relationship that develops between him and Cristina. Cruz steals every scene she is in with her portrayal of the fiery tempered and potentially psychotic Spanish beauty that may or may not have stabbed her ex-husband.
Beyond Cruz’s performance, we get some gorgeous scenery of Barcelona (one of the best reasons to watch), a mildly irritating voiceover that draws too much attention to itself and a meandering script that focuses on relationships in traditional Allen style (though not even close to as good as Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters). A game of mix-and-match is played pairing up a number of main characters: Cristina and Juan Antonio, Vicky and her safe but dependable fiancée, Vicky and Juan Antonio, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena and most notably Juan Antonio, Cristina and Maria Elena. For those curious, the media hyped sexual pairing of Johansson and Cruz amounts to five seconds of footage consisting of a kiss.
The movie is enjoyable as a quick distraction but ultimately forgettable. The script does not feel tight enough and you never develop sympathy for Cristina, which is not Johansson’s fault as she does the best she can with the character provided. Javier Bardem deserves better roles than this since he mostly acts out a caricature of a Spanish artist. Rebecca Hall shows promise as Vicky but is also constrained by playing “Woody Allen light” that pales next to many of the director’s better and more inspired portrayals. Fans of Allen’s work will still probably require a viewing as this is one of the director’s better films in recent years, but that is only because it is fairly harmless next to disappointments such as Hollywood Ending (2002) or Celebrity (1998).
Whatever qualms I have with the script, the 1.85:1 VC-1 encoded 1080p video is the highlight of this Blu-ray release. The transfer is not razor sharp yet presents ample detail and dimensionality. A golden hue pervades the warm image that highlights both the beauty of the actors and the Spanish scenery. The pristinely clean transfer has a film-like quality that showcases cinematographer’s Javier Aguirresarobe’s often stunning visual arrangements.
The only complaint is several darker moments when blacks do not resolve as well as expected. Aside from that we get very little grain but no obvious evidence that any digital processing was applied to remove it. This is a very nice looking image that gives you something to occupy your attention when the narrative fails to entertain.
Most of Allen’s films have been released on home video with a monaural soundtrack so the 3-channel uncompressed LPCM track provided is a modest surprise. It really functions as a mono track with the dialog and many audio effects coming from the center channel but some environmental effects and music in the fronts.
This soundtrack will not blow you away but Woody’s movies are primarily dialog driven affairs that in this case comes through crisp and clean with no issues being understood. The varied use of Spanish guitar compliments the mood set by the lush visuals of Barcelona and is well reproduced. There are no dubbed audio tracks but subtitles are provided in English (SDH) and Spanish.
There are absolutely no extras to be found, but, if you are familiar with Allen’s movies on DVD, you know they have never had any either. Woody has been said to prefer his films to speak for themselves and I own over ten of his titles on DVD that are equally devoid of special features. So this is not much of a surprise though the uninformed may be disappointed.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona does not necessarily squander its talented actors but does not really showcase their skills either with the exception of Penelope Cruz. Fans of Woody Allen expecting a brilliant return to form will be dissatisfied. But, if the setup of the movie seems interesting, it is worth a rental with the proper expectations. Weinstein/Genius delivers a very competent high-def Blu-ray transfer and acceptable lossless audio to compliment the mixed bag of a script.
– Robert Searle