Why doesn’t Woody Allen do something crazy – like make King Lear? (“How – uh – y’know – how sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a – uh – a thankless child”) What’s the point in playing it safe at 75? And – to get to my point (lopsidedly) – why bother making Vicky Cristina Barcelona? Woody Allen has made two classics in his career (Annie Hall, Manhattan), and about six movies that are almost-classic (Zelig, Hannah and Her Sisters… Radio Days?), but his recent output is pedestrian – ignorable. So why not play Lear? Afterall, he was in that cockamamie Jean-Luc Godard Lear twenty years ago.
His latest is like all the rest for the past five years: Woody ropes in some beautiful girls, casts someone else as “Woody Allen” (this time it’s Rebecca Hall); they all decamp to Europe and Scarlett Johansson does whatever she does off-camera that persuades Woody to keep giving her work. The story this time is about two beautiful young women who go to Barcelona for a sojourn (i.e. what a holiday is when you’re rich enough not to worry when your holiday ends). Vicky is sensible, engaged-to-be-married and a little tense. Cristina is (and has a lot of) sex. They meet Javier Bardem (who’s playing an artist). He seduces both of them. And life seems to be good, and full of ambrosia. But then they meet Javier’s ex-wife.
Penelope Cruz is so good as Javier’s ex-wife that you almost forget she’s speaking English. After her disastrous try-out as an English-language star (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Vanilla Sky) she would be forgiven for staying mute in American movies, but here Woody Allen writes a role that let’s her be Spanish-Penelope: a woman (not the milk-blooded, whispery, good little person she always plays in America). Spanish-Penelope is carnal. She has thighs. When she speaks, it’s like hearing a rosary being melted. Somehow Penelope lost all that in English translation. Here, she’s back, reaffirming why Spanish priests feared her.
If Vicky Cristina Barcelona has a potential fault-line, it’s who you cast as the man at the centre of a love quadrangle. Happily, Javier Bardem never seems phased. Bardem has a sort of horny sang froid, as if sex was like weather for him. When he propositions Vicky and Cristina, it’s like he’s lifting his face to catch the sun. He doesn’t seem capable of taking a prurient interest in women (maybe if he was younger or less good-looking…), so it’s no surprise he does so well. Everything Bardem made axe-like in No Country for Old Men is relaxed here. Even when he paints it’s like he was picking fruit.
And so to Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall. No, Scarlett has not yet learned to act. She clanks through her scenes as metallically as ever; chest first, eyes shrill, every line delivered with the ink still wet. Even by Match Point standards (and she acted like a coffin in Match Point), she’s inanimate.
Rebecca Hall plays Woody Allen – the voice of reason that cracks. You wouldn’t picture her as a Woody from a picture, but she’s him: she makes his kind of mistakes. Hall starts hard but pretty soon she’s lolling her head back. She’s the moral of the story: sex is great, but don’t piss off Penelope Cruz.
Would Woody do Shakespeare? He’d need to be drunk to consider it. But he and Lear have much in common. Both are old men. Both have had trouble with women. Both enjoy a joke. And both figure God is dead. I can picture Woody cursing his troublesome daughters (“I will do such things – I – uh – I don’t yet – ah – know what they are – but – uh – y’know – they’ll be the – uh – terrors of the earth”) and hell – he needs to stop making movies like he was shelling nuts. There’s nothing wrong with Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but, when you can’t keep a review focused on a movie, it must be achingly slight.