Now settled as the grandfather of today’s askew romantics, Woody Allen insists on keeping his film turnout high as though he’s afraid he’ll be forgotten. If the years haven’t been kind to him, we’re half to blame: What other filmmaker is as scrutinized for mediocrity? Yet his recent flicks—including the understated and wrenching Cassandra’s Dream—have been flummoxingly decent; neither disasters nor triumphs, just moderate ambitions done well. Shot by anyone else, they’d be minor jewels. Instead people force yawns.
His latest, a four-way romance between Penélope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, and fulcrum Javier Bardem, is a flatfooted tour of female dissatisfaction. Vicky (Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) are American abroad in Spain for the summer. Like a nature host, Christopher Evan Welch narrated their inner lives before either breaks the seal on her lip-gloss. Brunette Vicky is the brains—a master’s student certain she’s making the smart move in marrying a stable, well-connected, well-off young businessman (Chris Messina in a under-the-radar brilliant comic turn). Blonde Cristina is busting with emotions, unfounded artistic ambitions, and little else save ScarJo’s ripe natural gifts. She does for loose tank tops what Lana Turner did for sweaters. Allen has said he loves writing roles for the bombshell and he’s done those talents justice by casting her as a bad actress living her life like a role on an outré soap opera. When a confident painter named Juan Antonio (Bardem) struts up to their dinner table and insists that both meet him at the airport in an hour for a weekend holiday where they’ll delight in food, wine, culture, and each other (“Life is short, life is dull!” he enthuses), Cristina leaps aboard and despite Vicky’s damned sensible refusal, she buckles in eventually to keep her friend safe.
The girls have a merited debate about Bardem’s attractiveness. (Forget No Country For Old Men, I’ll never forgive him for the geriatric dry-humping horrors of Love In The Time Of Cholera.) Allen considers Juan Antonio a candid romantic. People who’ve read Neil Strauss’ The Game recognize a faux-bravado manipulator. Still, both wind up in bed with him and Cristina moves in. The movie’s funniest moments come when the narrator skewers her with a smile as yet another restless Yank convinced she’s the reincarnation of Anais Nin.
Allen will never believe in the oversimplified ideal of one man and one woman—and why should he or any of us given so many failed examples? (His 11-year marriage to Soon-Yi Previn excepted.) Vicky Cristina Barcelona kicks off like a Goofus and Gallant of love with naïve Johansson headed for ruin. Neither ingénue’s romance is enough to carry the film. We’re anxiously awaiting the long-hyped entrance of Cruz as Bardem’s tempestuous ex-wife, the suicidal one who stabbed him for cheating and is so erotically charged even his father (Josep Maria Domènech) cops to sexy daydreams of his former daughter-in-law. Cruz detonates the film, drawing the unspoken complications in to glaring focus as she smokes, glares, and freely admits her thoughts of killing her romantic rivals. Johannson is America’s pinup—the clean, soft blonde—but over her decade and a half career, Cruz has sharpened into a different beast entirely, a fierce man-eater who disdains her prey. As soon as she enters the picture, Johansson’s watery artist is forced to shift gears from free spirit to doting mom, Woody’s savviest observation of the roles women adopt in competition.
If you can’t out-heat them, out-nurture them. Cruz and Bardem can’t explain what their passionate union lacked; Allen suggests it was a buffer that prevented them from self-combustion. Marshmallow Johannson realizes she could be what sticks them together, and while it’s easy to tease Allen for implying that a Maxim fantasy is the secret to stable, if crowded bliss, there’s enough grace and honesty in his ménage that it’s practically practical.