Monday, 12 January 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona - Best Comedy of the Year

Directed by Woody Allen

Let it be said that I love Woody Allen. He is one of my favourite filmmakers. Of his post 200 films, I particularly love Matchpoint, which features what I consider to be Scarlett Johansson’s best performance. I went into Vicky Cristina Barcelona with unusually mixed emotions, though. I had, maybe stupidly, read the released screenplay before seeing it so I knew most of the ‘spoilers’ and I had heard raves for Penelope Cruz's performance and some for Rebecca Hall. Oddly, I had heard nothing said about Johansson’s performance in a role that Allen wrote specifically for her. 

I was aware that there was a narrator in the film, but looking at the film made me realise how pervasive he was more than reading. I didn’t like the narrator idea, or at least I don't quite like it here. The narrator idea was not bad, but the actual narrator feels so displaced from the entire film. His voice was cold and distant and he did not sound at all interested in the story which could very well be the point but makes the film seem so arid in spots where it could be warmer. It might be a personal issue, though. Two films with narrators that I have loved are Chocolat and The Age of Innocence. In the latter film the narrator is not a character in the story, but she is very engaging. In the former film, at the end we realise that the narrator is the adult version of Juliette Binoche’s daughter. The reason I mention this is because it occurred to me that I am just not predisposed to care for male narrators. Off the bat, three primetime shows I know with narrators are Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and Gossip Girl. I like Dexter, more than all these shows but its male narrator is not as well executed as the others. All these narrators are women, and they are very effective to somewhat varying degrees. The narrator in Vicky Cristina Barcelona took so much getting used to that it was half way through the film that I finally found myself not being distracted by his intonation. 

The script though, like most of Woody Allen films, was great. It was a good romp in the park without being over-hilarious. It was more Hannah & Her Sisters than Annie Hall. There weren’t many ‘laugh out loud’ moments, but I’m sure there were smiles on your faces most of the time you were watching. Allen is notorious for writing great roles for women in his films (Annie Hall, Interiors, Hannah & Her Sisters, Husbands & Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, Sweet & Lowdown, Matchpoint to name a few). Save for the last film each of these films had Oscar nominated performances from their women, and Matchpoint deserved one. As in those films, the women in this film stood out wonderfully. Patricia Clarkson had a relatively minor role, but she was effective as the meddling Judy, with just a trace of dark-humour and the hint of a fisher wife.

I have never seen Rebecca Hall in a film before, but she reminds me of a better acted version of Jessica Biels. It was during the first scene that I realised the striking resemblance to Biels when my sister asked me if it was her. In an odd way she also looked like a dark haired Johansson in some scenes, but I digress. In the film Hall’s Vicky calls Cristina (Johansson) a neurotic, but her character seems the more neurotic of the two. My favourite scenes for her were the ones she had with Johansson; they had a very believable chemistry and I’d like to see them in another film.

Penelope Cruz is a great actress, her performance in Volver a few years ago was pure genius, and here again she shows her beauty and vitality. It’s impossible to ignore the buzz she has amounted going into this award season and she has become something of a frontrunner. I won’t say what’s already been said about how great it is that she got to say her scenes in Spanish etc. That being said the build-up that the audience is put through waiting for this luminous Marie Elena is not a letdown. Cruz delivers on all points and we can definitely see why Juan Antonio is to some extent obsessed with her. I love the scene where she tells Cristina that she searched her bags the first night she was there, the humour was so authentic and there’s something so sexy about people with accents speaking English… but once again I digress. I wouldn’t be completely upset if she won the Oscar (although I wouldn’t mind if Kate Winslet, Taraji P Henson or Marissa Tomei won either).

Scarlett Johansson performs in her third Woody Allen film and she is as good as she was in the first. I find it strange that Rebecca Hall has been getting awards buzz for her role and Johansson gets none. I suppose it has to do with Hall being a newcomer. I have always had a weakness for Scarlett Johansson since Lost in Translation and her performance as Vicky is so understated and subtle, more than people may realise. I don’t think it’s fair to judge her performance against Penlope Cruz or Hall for the same reason we couldn’t judge Jude Law against Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley or Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain. Both Matt and Nicole were playing the ‘straight’ man while their counterparts where playing these messed up and assertive characters that drew intense audience support and also huge awards buzz. In the same way I don’t think Johansson’s straight character was interesting as Cruz’s messed up Marie Elena. I preferred Jude Law, but I also preferred Nicole Kidman. In this case I’m torn. The performances are so different I can’t judge. It’s the same as in Hannah & Her Sisters. I couldn’t understand what made Diane Wiest’s performance so much better than Mia Farrow or Barbara Hershey.

Don’t let my talk of the women fool you though; the men in Vicky Cristina Barcelona hold their own. Led by the superb Javier Bardem who is very good as Juan Antonio, Kevin Dunn and Chris Messina are also good. Bardem’s performance was best when he was with Cruz. I have a strong feeling this was because of their Spanish connection. Every time he reminded her to speak English I’d laugh because he’d be speaking in Spanish and chiding her for replying in Spanish. Dunn & Messina never have a strong enough arc to steal the show, but as with any ensemble film, their presence was felt. Patricia Clarkson is marvellous as Judy. In a small role that could have been less, she sticks with me. After the end I kept thinking what happened to Judy and Vicky and their marriage?

If you failed to pick it up, I have been throwing out quite a number of Hannah & Her Sister references and that is because I kept thinking about that film while I was looking. The dilemma that Vicky was put in reminded me some much of Carrie Fisher and Michael Caine in Hannah. I preferred the ‘original’, but this film had its own quirks that made it special. I liked this film, I’m pretty sure it will be winning the Golden Globe for best comedy and it will be deserved. 


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