Aside from "Manhattan," my favorite title from his expansive body of work, Allen's films generally fail to wow me in the ways I crave from such 'individual' filmmakers -- visual splendor and innovative narrative shown from a unique and artistic point of view. His movies possess these things, of course (it'd practically be blasphemy against American cinema to say they didn't), but, for me, the Woody Allen-ness of them (an adjective that anyone who follows his work will understand) often steps out in front of what they have to offer. Maybe I'm not always into his humor...or maybe I just haven't seen enough of his films (there are so many - of quality, no less - it's mind boggling).
I have seen enough to know that, in terms of a more superficial sense of style, Allen is like the directorial equivalent of Calvin Klein. Throughout his career, his taste in casting (from Diane Keaton to Mira Sorvino) and locations (New York and, lately, abroad) has been consistently chic and his newest offering, the travel channel fling "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," is no exception. In fact, it's a stellar example.
In the exotic romantic dramedy, that's as fun to watch as it is to say, bright Brit Rebecca Hall ("The Prestige") is Vicky and Scarlett Johansson ("Match Point," "Scoop"), Allen's latest muse, is Cristina, two friends who travel to...Barcelona. There they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a dark and handsome artist whose invitation for a hot weekend turns into a summer of passon for both women. Penelope Cruz plays Juan Antonio's crazed ex-wife, Maria Elena, in a performance that's steadily gaining Supporting Actress Oscar buzz. The film builds for more than an hour before the Spanish vixen makes her subtle entrance and, from then on, Cruz steals it, amazingly inspiring big laughs and pity simultaneously without ever overplaying her scorned, suicidal character. The rest of the players back her up with good turns all around, including Patricia Clarkson's noble wife caught in a loveless marriage.
How beautiful is this?!?
Allen takes his gorgeous cast, hand-picked from Hollywood's hot commodity bin, and drops them into Spain with a meticulous hand (a bit too meticulous -- the film could shave at least 15 mins.), guiding them and his camera through the gorgeous architecture of the land. There's also a narrator, whose fun voice is never personified but who fills in the gaps of Allen's sexy and sophisticated dialogue. (I do love that aspect of Allen's writing -- it's smart and converstional. He's not chatty like Tarantino, his exchanges are much more plot driven.) The narrator is our tour guide all the way to the end, when the characters leave us as quickly as they arrived. The randomness and pick-up-and-go structure of "Vicky" is just like a carefree vacation. It's a vacation worth taking with Allen, who knows all the good sights.