VCB is a story about two female American tourists in Barcelona who both
fall for the same Spanish painter. The interactions among them are further
complicated by the reappearance of his crazy ex-wife, who is his
soul-mate. The story was written and directed by Woody Allen, who has
turned out a picture every year for enough consecutive years to make Lou
Speaking of Gehrig ... I remember reading that Lou knew it was time to
give up the consecutive games streak when one of his teammates
congratulated him on making a routine play. If only Woody Allen was
capable of that same kind of realistic self-appraisal.
Woody is an accomplished filmmaker, so you can expect that he made the
routine plays correctly: the music is beautiful; the city of Barcelona and
its environs are photographed with love; the editing is so smooth that the
narrative flows effortlessly. Woody also made one good stop of a hard shot
down the line: the crazy ex-wife character, as played by Penelope Cruz, is
one of the most interesting people the author has ever created, and is
perfectly suited to showcase the talents of the actress. (Did Woody write
this role with Penelope in mind?) Critics praised those achievements.
Having noted all of that, let me be one of the rare voices to say this
is not a good movie in spite of those positives. The screenplay is just
downright awful. Never mind that it's tedious. Ignore the fact that the
characters and situations are all movie clichés. Those things are almost
tolerable in light of the film's strengths, and they can be characterized
as elements of mediocrity rather than incompetence.
So let me get to the actual incompetence.
Let's start with the voice-over narration. There are plenty of
situations where I love narration. In film noir detective stories, I love
it because I want to hear the character's assessment of the situation
expressed in his own colorful patois, and because when the narration is
done right it adds mood and flavor and even a touch of poetry to the film.
An example would be The Big Sleep. Narration can also be fun in comedies
when it is done by a main character, functions as part of his character
development, and adds the humor of his POV. An example would be Lord of
War. Those are rare exceptions, however. Narration is normally an irritant
in the best of circumstances. In the worst, it destroys a film. That's
what happens here.
Woody makes every possible mistake with this narration:
First, it adds nothing to character development. The narrator is not
a character in the film, but an impersonal, omniscient voice reciting
Second, the narration simply repeats things we have already been
shown or, even worse, tells us things we should have been shown.
Third, it doesn't even sound like it is being delivered by an actor.
What's worse, the narrator is not only a poor actor, but a poor narrator
as well. This is not your James Earl Jones type of narration. The voice
of God is thin, flat, and juvenile. It sounds like a high school
freeshman who is forced to read a dramatic interp passage in front of
other boys, and is thus afraid to breathe any life or passion into it
because it will make him sound less masculine and earn him a playground
There are plenty of other problems.
- The humor is almost non-existent, and when the script reaches for
laughs it does so clumsily.
- There is a superfluous character (a fellow student in Vicky's
Spanish class) introduced and dropped for no apparent reason.
- There are some weak line readings by the two title characters.
Woody just plain dropped the ball on some of those routine grounders.
Overall Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a mediocre movie rather than an bad
one because Woody Allen knows too much about filmmaking to turn out
anything which is an utter waste of time. But it is really time for the
old fella to stop churning out so many movies. Instead of creating one
forgettable film every year to keep the consecutive streak going, maybe he
could do one every three years, but make it a good one. Woody will have to
figure this out on his own, because his metaphorical Yankee teammates,
i.e. his fans and admiring critics, are going to continue to slap his back
when he makes the routine plays. Something happens to filmmakers once they
reach the level of "acclaimed genius." Nobody in their entourage is ever
willing to tell these emperors that they are naked because the entourage
consists either of sycophants or awe-struck fans who are intimidated by
the genius. Admiring critics, in the manner of Gehrig's admiring
teammates, praise the geniuses for the smallest achievements while
overlooking colossal misfires.
I could do the same. I love the scene where Penelope Cruz is painting
in a smock with no bra and Woody photographs her from above. It
demonstrates how Woody's outstanding craftsmanship blinds critics to his
other failures. Beautiful photographic composition. Beautiful, sensuous
actress. Meticulously created set. Gorgeous and appropriate music. Perfect
choice of camera angles, which not only frames the scene nicely, reflects
another character's POV, and makes the action as sexy as possible, but
also allows the cinematographer to move to action on a higher elevation in
the same take, edit-free.
(And then the Woodman spoils everything with some flat, intrusive and
utterly unnecessary narration!)
OK, Woody, there's your praise. Way to handle that routine grounder.
Now do what Gehrig did and recognize that praise as the sign that it's
time to end the consecutive streak.