Monday, December 15, 2008
Running with the Bulls…and Getting Nowhere
By Josh R
There are certain pursuits that only a crazy person — or an inveterate thrill seeker — would ever be gutsy and/or stupid enough to engage in. The annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, is a custom that engenders shock and outrage in some quarters and a sense of vicarious fear and excitement in others. No matter how much one dreads the potential consequences, the notion of flirting with disaster — if not the prospect of being gored and maimed by a hard-charging beast — will always be a turn-on.
Woody Allen is not the first name that comes to mind when the discussion turns to risk-taking.
For much of the '90s and early aughts, his films were characterized by the kind of cheap, prurient humor that all but screamed creative exhaustion; the approach smacked of desperation, while the attitudes smacked of misanthropy (if there are any two films in the Allen canon which convey more contempt for humanity than Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity, please — discourage from Santa from depositing those DVDs in my Christmas stocking). Critics have hailed his most recent strategy — specifically, making films that seem wildly out-of-character for him — as a return to form. Based on how impersonal in style most of the “new” Woody Allen films have been (and even Match Point, while not without merit, felt dry and academic even when it was trying for heat and danger), I remain unconvinced. Sometimes inspiration has to be borrowed rather than self-generated, which is not only forgivable but inevitable for anyone who can boast nearly half of the cinematic output of a Woody Allen. The writer-director has famously paid homage to other directors whose work he admires — most notably Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini — and the results have occasionally been very good indeed. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona he’s taking on Almodóvar without the freak factor, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that it isn’t an assignment he feels particularly comfortable with or well disposed to handle. Tackling the unfamiliar can represent a risk; it’s only a good risk if it has a chance in hell of working. There are things to like — and at least one thing to love — about this awkwardly conceived and frequently exasperating romantic-quadrangle story set in a sunny Spain where the wine runs as freely as those crazy bulls stampeding through the Pamplona streets. On the balance, however, it ultimately seems like a half-baked attempt at the kind of film Woody Allen doesn’t know how to make — or at least, shouldn’t be trying to make in the absence of a concept that's been clearly thought out from beginning to end.
Fittingly, Vicky Cristina is an ode to the perils of grappling with irresolute feelings, and the emotional gap between doing what feels right and what seems best. Two young American women have come to spend the summer in Barcelona, one to finish her dissertation and the other to soak in the rays, take a few snapshots and generally play tagalong. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), a confirmed dilettante, is the more intrepid of the two. She has no idea what she wants out of life beyond a vague need for excitement and a departure from the norm. Cautious, pragmatic Vicky (Rebecca Hall), engaged to be married at the end of the summer, is a little too firmly resolved on the future for her own good. Both women become romantically entangled with a seductive Spanish painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who offers each one very different glimpses of what the future might hold should they be brave and/or impulsive enough to act on their desires. Each of the women wind up running with the bulls, and while no one gets gored, no one escapes completely intact either. Ultimately, both women’s inability to reconcile their own conflicted feelings makes the fulfillment of the fantasy somewhat less than satisfying.
The difficulty in making film about people who don’t know what they want comes in creating clear definition of character, or in finding a sense of purpose in their behavior. This is something that Allen (with one glorious exception) never really figures out how to do, and as a result, Vicky Cristina often feels like a film in search of an author. None of the people we observe, save for one, really ever come into sharp focus, saddled as they are with behaviors and attitudes that are too inconsistent, or just plain hard to make sense of, to be entirely convincing. Bardem is such a marvelously predatory presence in the first half of the film, that the passivity he displays in the second undermines all the goodwill and he’s built up as an enjoyably shady schmoozer of tourists. As the hedonist who’s too flaky to stay fixed on a single sensation long enough to find any lasting gratification in it, Johansson does her usual trick of underplaying every scene that she’s in – the fact that she does it to good effect here doesn’t dispel the lingering sense that, as an actress, she may be a one-trick pony. Rebecca Hall, a newcomer who sometimes manages to make a striking impression, has an intuitive grasp of the nuances of Allen’s dialogue and speech patterns. She has a presence and substance that Johansson lacks, but the character’s hostility toward Bardem in the early scenes is alienating, while her staunch determination not to give over to her feelings exhausts the audience’s patience later on (her powers of forbearance are so commendable she’s like Elizabeth II refusing to break down and give Prince Charles a hug). None are helped by dialogue that often seems as stilted as the bald, perfunctory-seeming narration that flattens out the action like a steamroller. Allen’s dialogue used to flow so naturally, to the point where it often seemed improvised — perhaps because he’s no longer making the kind of films that he feels comfortable making, or that feel distinctively his, the words now come out sounding as if they were translated into English from another language.
Things being what they are, Vicky Cristina Barcelona stumbles along for its first 45 minutes or so like a Cook’s tour without a guide, without conveying much in the way of excitement or energy — stumbling, that is, until the arrival of Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, Maria Elena, the kind of volatile and erratic presence for whom creating chaos comes as naturally as getting out of bed. Maria Elena is played by Penélope Cruz, an actress who’s been easy to dismiss as little more than a pretty face for the bulk of her career. She needn’t have to worry about that from here on out. As a walking cyclone of emotions who is passionate, provocative, paranoid and more than slightly unhinged, Cruz's impact on the film is something akin to a bomb going off in a glass factory; the character may not be any more fully realized by the author than any of the others, but the performance has such an electric intensity that it cuts right through the bullshit and becomes a genuine force of nature — dangerous, unpredictable, and as sexy-scary as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Unfortunately for the actress, and the audience, neither the film nor the filmmaker know exactly what to do with her. We keep waiting for Allen to give Cruz the opportunity to take Vicky Cristina Barcelona to another level — a big juicy scene, a monologue, anything… she gets so much kick and charge out of the material she has that it whets our appetite for more (in short, she's terrific). The bull is waiting at the gates, kicking back the dirt with steam issuing from her nostrils. Sad to say, Mr. Allen can’t quite muster the courage to run with her.