As thornhill sat in the movie theater on opening night, he thought back a couple of months to the first time he saw the trailer for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", the new film with Javier Bardem , Penelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johannson. As thornhill heard these names announced, he thought 'interesting', 'more interesting', 'don't know her' and 'well, even thornhill can't have everything.' But the trailer looked promising and when it was finished playing, he remembered where he had heard about the film before.
Thornhill has been in many movie theaters over the course of his life, and many, many, many of these screenings were for new films by writer and director Woody Allen. Early in his life, the young cineaste began to appreciate the skill of the director and eagerly sought out every one of his new films. Granted, some of these offerings were better than others, but the extremely witty writing, the comedic timing and the performances the director was able to evoke frequently surprised thornhill. When Allen is at the top of his form, the work is great and often priceless. Who can argue that "Annie Hall", "Manhattan", "Hannah and her Sisters" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors" will not be remembered as great, well-made films? But Allen makes a lot of films and he occasionally makes films that are just good. And he also makes films that can be excruciating. Unfortunately, there have been more of the last two types of films in the last few decades than the great works from earlier in his career.
Thornhill is such a die hard fan, he has been subjected to many of Allen's lesser works. Allen has a reputation that thornhill knows too well, a reputation that also works against him. Allen makes his films on extremely tight budgets, and his films are generally profitable because of this, which allows him to make the films he wants to make, to tell the stories he wants to tell, with little interference from the studios. Because of his reputation, and the caliber of performances he is capable of getting from his actors, many stars want to work with Allen, even at greatly reduced salaries. He can basically pick and choose whom he wants to work with and this has led to some great performances (Michael Caine and Barbara Hershey in "Hannah and Her Sisters", Martin Landau and Alan Alda in "Crimes and Misdemeanors"). But it also leads Allen to work with 'new and exciting' stars, performers on the rise who are thrilled to work with the respected director but who really don't belong in an Allen film. As the stars get younger, they seem more out of place, more alien to the universe Allen creates. This has led him to work with Will Ferrell, Radha Mitchell, Elizabeth Berkley, Helen Hunt and many others who simply don't work in an Allen film.
A few years ago, Allen created a film called "Matchpoint", a thriller set in London starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer and Mathew Goode. Everything about this film says it should join the group that includes "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" and "Melinda/ Melinda", two of the lowpoints of Allen's career. In other words, it should join the bad list. But it worked. Extremely well. Thornhill was pleased. Very pleased. But then Allen followed with two clunkers, "Scoop", starring Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Jackman and Allen in a lame, terribly unfunny comedy and "Cassandra's Dream" starring Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell trying to recreate the magic Allen found in "Matchpoint". But they didn't work. Now that his London bug is out of his system, the filmmaker has moved on to Spain (and Spanish funding for his film) and brings us "Vicky Cristina Barcelona".
If thornhill ever had any doubt that Johansson is Allen's new muse, "Barcelona" erased them for good.
He thinks that Allen may have made this film simply to include the scene depicting Johansson and Cruz's characters in a lip lock. But your intrepid movie reviewer is getting a bit ahead of himself.
So each time thornhill saw the trailer, his anticipation went up a bit. Was it possible that this would be one of Allen's "good" pictures? It looked promising. Until thornhill sat in the theater on opening night.
Thornhill's friend, who would accompany him, first broke the bad news to him the afternoon they were going to attend. He remembers asking her "So, was the review in the ____ Times good?" He also remembers the slight pause. Then she answered "No. They made a point to comment about the voice over." Then thornhill paused. "Voice over? Well, how much could there be". And he happily clicked away to buy their reserved seats for the screening that evening.
How much could there be indeed. Voice over is best used sparingly. It should be used to help give the audience some idea of what a character might be thinking or contemplating when the actor, director and writer can't have the character express these feelings verbally. Or voice over can help bridge parts of the story we really don't need to see saving time and money.
In "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", Allen uses an unidentified voice to tell us about Vicky and Cristina's thoughts, feelings, emotions as we simply watch them looking at each other, or towards the camera, off in the distance. We learn about their history. We learn about what brought them to Barcelona in the first place. We learn Vicky is engaged to be married. We learn about her fiancée. We learn about everyone and everything and the voice seems to speak nonstop. What this does is to take the viewer out of the action and away from the characters. Because someone is telling us about their lives, emotions, feelings, how are we supposed to connect with these same characters? So much of the connection between and audience and the story comes from the discovery of these same aspects of the characters of a film. If someone is telling us all of these things, why should we bother? In fact, hearing so much voice over makes me think I am reading a book. I enjoy reading, but if I am at a film, I want to experience something visual.
Someone mentioned to me that they heard this was Allen's homage to Truffaut's "Jules and Jim". This actually makes a lot of sense. Thornhill knows that Allen very often tries to evoke the style and look of his favorite auteurs, most notably Ingmar Bergman. This is the first time thornhill has heard of the filmmaker trying to evoke Truffaut, but it fits. But that doesn't make thornhill like "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" any more.
Because Johansson has been on so many of Allen's recent films, thornhill has come to the conclusion that Allen has appointed her his new muse. How else to explain the director's infatuation with this actress? Thornhill agrees that she is pretty, but he can also emphatically argue that she is simply a good actress. Better than Elizabeth Berkeley. Not as good as many, many other actors who frequently work in the director's films. "Barcelona" is about two American women (Rebecca Hall, "Starter for 10", "The Prestige" and Johansson) who travel to Spain for the summer and end up catching the eye of an artist (Bardem) who is still reeling from craziness his ex-wife (Cruz) brought into his life and many of the women fall in love with Bardem's artist. All of these shenanigans seem designed to make it possible for Allen to orchestrate a kiss between Johansson and Cruz. I know he isn't the only man in the world who would enjoy seeing such a thing. But Johansson just isn't that great an actress. And he could choose better people to appear in his films.
Thornhill enjoyed Bardem's portrayal of the slightly eccentric artist Jose Antonio who seems to enjoy being an artist almost as much as he enjoys what being an artist means. He can be impetuous, he can be romantic, and he can be noncommittal. And he displays all of these attributes to their best and worst.
The real find in "Barcelona" is Rebacca Hall, a British actress who appeared in "Starter for 10" and "The Prestige" and will be seen very soon in Ron Howard's adaptation of "Frost/ Nixon". She is the only actor in the film who appears to be trying to show some emotional range. Even better yet, the character's problems appear natural and believable. In short, her character isn't dependent on the excessive voice over. Initially, she is put off by Jose Antonio's offer to take she and Cristina away for the weekend, to "make love". But Cristina wants to go, so she tags along as an escort. But events turn on her and she finds herself in a conflict. Then her fiancée, Doug (Chris Messina, HBO's "Six Feet Under") shows up and wants to get married in Barcelona. Hall does a good job with the role.
Thornhill even liked Penelope Cruz and she usually drives him nuts. There is a funny ongoing joke between her character and Bardem's, providing much of the only laughter in the film.
So, all in all, thornhill thought Allen's new film "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" was okay. Not his best work. Not his worst. Sort of mediocre. And not worth spending money to see at a theater. Definitely a movie to wait for on DVD. Maybe they will put the voice over on a separate track. That way, if you detest it as much as thornhill does, you can turn it off and try to concentrate on the performances instead.