Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a delightfully ridiculous story about Vicky and Cristina, two young American women who head to Barcelona for the summer and become enmired in a ridiculously tempestuous love debacle. What's brilliant about the movie is the balance it manages to strike, both mocking the characters and also humanizing them. This is most obvious in the case of Cristina, played entirely well by Scarlett Johanssen, a woman who longs to be a liberated free spirit and to find herself in Europe. All that cliche stuff. Certainly, she's a ridiculous character, and the film is occasionally borderline vicious towards her. But nonetheless, you find yourself genuinely sympathizing with her as well. Same goes for Vicky, the straight-laced, uptight friend who gets swept up into melodrama. Either of the characters could easily be either too leniently treated or too harshly - the film manages to get the angle just right. Likewise, Penelope Cruz, who is absolutely revelational as the deranged ex-wife, and is also borderline ridiculous, delightfully unhinged, but also wonderfully poignant and touching. And Javier Bardem as the stock sultry European painter is likewise slightly sleazy, slightly preposterous, but ultimately, actually, a pretty good guy. So the movie ends up both poking fun at these cliches, but also fleshing them out - after all, these stories DO happen. And ok, yes, the premise is sort of silly, and a lot of parts of the movie stretch the credibility pretty thin - but never, I think, too thin. The polyamorous segment will indubitably make some viewers extremely skeptical, but I thought that actually, it was quite well done - it was uncomfortable at first, then it worked, sort of, but ultimately it didn't. Which, I think, is kind of exactly how such things go.
I think this is idea of humanizing cliches is a theme that Woody Allen has now gotten really interested in. If so, I worry, because it's awfully tricky to get right, and perhaps he shouldn't push his luck. Though if you miss old Woody Allen, one thing that persists is his lovely evocation of place - something he's always been great at, and manages to pull of brilliantly, even in foreign countries. They're dreamy and gorgeous and slightly unreal but wonderful nonetheless.
What really struck me about the movie was Johanssen's character. In opposition to her friend, who knows exactly what she wants, the sultry Scarlett has no idea - she only knows what she doesn't want, and is game to try just about anything. At first, this makes her seem far more confident and adventurous than her friend. But what the movie subtly points out is that she's actually extremely diffident, always willing to step aside and put other people first. Because she has no clearly articulated needs and desires of her own, and is, for all her narcissism, a conscientious person who doesn't want to hurt others, she rarely considers her own well being. It's really kind of interesting.
The only real complaint one could level against the film is that for all the fantastically attractive stars, the sex scenes are, well, not that exciting. There's nothing wrong with them, they're fine, it's just that they're not nearly as explosive and hot as one might expect. I wonder if this isn't related to the fact that everyone loves to call Woody Allen a pervert, and if the sex scenes were hot, it would likely be seen as his lewdness. Pity, that.
Anyhow, all in all, really a very good movie. And really, I have to say it again - Penelope Cruz is fabulous. The movie is worth seeing for her alone. Luckily, it's worth seeing for plenty of other reasons too.