What happens when several characters in a film have the same voice, regardless of age, gender, or personality? Vicky Cristina Barcelona is charming and entertaining at times, but Academy Award-winning comic legend Woody Allen could still learn to diversify when it comes to character.
While dining together after an art show in Barcelona, good friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (current Woody-muse Scarlett Johansson), two 20-something American tourists, are invited by a charming painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), to fly away for a naughty weekend trip. Vicky, who is getting married in the fall, is deeply offended and angered by the offer, but Cristina is intrigued, and they ultimately agree to go. To her shock, Vicky falls for Juan, and when the threesome returns to Barcelona, she confides in her unhappily married hostess, Judy (Patricia Clarkson), who advises her to ditch her boring-but-stable fiancé, Doug (Chris Messina), and make the choice Judy couldn't: romance over practicality.
Unaware of Vicky's misery and confusion, Cristina and Juan forge ahead with their own blissful relationship until Juan's crazy ex-wife, Maria Elena (a fabulous, volatile Penélope Cruz, stealing scenes like a professional thief), shows up, demanding a place to stay. That's when the comedy takes off, but the passion and hilarity Cruz's role injects into the story may come too late to save the script.
Throughout the first half of Woody Allen's latest film, there is bizarre, detailed narration that adds nothing to the characterization or plot, nor does it belie the action onscreen to humorous effect (as do the brilliant subtitles in his classic romantic comedyAnnie Hall). Rather, the narration tells us precisely what we're seeing. "They ate outside on the terrace and laughed" is juxtaposed with a scene of…the characters eating outside on the terrace and laughing. It's as though Allen had adapted the film from a beloved short story and couldn't risk removing a single, whimsical word of explanation. This is, of course, not the case, and while the voiceover does give us backstory on why Vicky and Cristina are in Barcelona for the summer, the information could easily have been left out, or, better still, revealed through dialogue or behavior. It's pretty obvious within a few scenes who the young women are: Vicky the student is prickly and judgmental, content if resigned to her path of marriage; Cristina the actress is adventurous and flighty, always seeking love but unsure what she wants from it.
Both female leads, particularly Vicky, talk like Woody Allen, and it's an odd sensation to see vibrant young women performing with his tics and speech patterns. That's not to say it isn't amusing; it's just not realistic. Johansson has been down this path before; her dialogue and behavior in Scoop and Match Point also required her to perform Allen-isms. In last year's Cassandra's Dream, however, Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell's characters were allowed to become more than Allen surrogates, so why not the ladies of Vicky Cristina?
Vicky is harshly disapproving, neurotic, and unlikable for a good portion of the story, and it's difficult to understand why Cristina or Juan would put up with her for any amount of time. Also, how and why did these women become close friends back in college? Their dialogue contains virtually no slang, in-jokes, or references to past events; at times they are formal and overly polite, as though they barely know each other at all.
Tellingly, Maria Elena does not get the narrative treatment, nor must she endure the Woody-voice. Perhaps it's because she speaks in Spanish, and is allowed a freer range of expression and movement. Her delightfully dysfunctional arguments with Juan Antonio are charged with sexual energy. Despite its flaws, the script does deliver some genuine laughs and romance, and the meditation on love, art, and choice is amusing and even thought provoking.
Whether Vicky or Cristina, Judy or Doug, they're mostly versions of Woody Allen. The characters who don't fall prey to Allen's famous mannerisms are Juan and Maria, and it is their story that entertains most.