"Show, don’t tell” is advice writers hear often; movie makers not so much. Film, after all, has to show us things: It’s a visual medium. Nonetheless, it’s advice Woody Allen might have done well to heed in making Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a film that comes with a dry-voiced, erudite third-person narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) who tells us what we’re seeing and how we should see it. And, like the narrator who crapped up Todd Field’s Little Children, he doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.
Take the opening of the movie, in which we meet best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) arriving for an extended vacation in Barcelona. The narrator gives us a thumbnail sketch of each: Vicky is getting a Master’s degree in “Catalan identity,” while the flightier Cristina has spent the past six months writing, directing and starring in “a 12-minute film she now hated.” So far, so good: Like a wry but affectionate uncle, Allen’s narrator offers an ironic angle on what we see. But then he goes all Henry James on us, and not in a good way. As Welch’s voice expounds on the contrasting ideals of Vicky and Cristina in life and love, it’s hard not to find him an extraneous bore.
That’s especially true because, a few scenes later, the actors show us everything we need to know. Sipping wine, Vicky and Cristina are approached by an older artist (Javier Bardem) whom they’ve met briefly at a gallery. Without bothering to sit down, Juan Antonio invites both young women to fly with him to the town of Oviedo, see the sights, and “make love.” When Vicky asks him where he gets off making such a bald proposition, he bats his bedroom eyes and responds, “Life is short. And full of pain.” Vicky, who’s engaged to a stable, solvent guy back in New York, is unpersuaded. But Cristina, who’s been making eyes at Juan Antonio across the room, is already seduced. (Clearly she hasn’t seen No Country for Old Men.)
Bardem and Johansson are utterly believable as people who would act on a carpe diem impulse, and the scene is one of the best in the film. But the story Allen wants to tell hinges on the conflicts of uptight Vicky, who forms her own bond with the artist after a spot of food poisoning puts Cristina temporarily out of commission. And those conflicts feel schematic and tired, as if Allen took a New Yorker piece that was “daring” in 1962 and dressed it up in modern J. Crew clothes. In our jaded global culture, it’s hard to imagine any American twentysomething could be as excited by the “freedom” of European artists as both women are. It’s also hard to imagine Vicky’s only options in life are her stultifying yuppie fiancé (Chris Messina) and a romance with a man who’s secretly still in love with his insanely jealous ex-wife.
As that ex from hell, Penélope Cruz is the best thing in the movie. She makes us believe in this woman who scares the shit out of Juan Antonio not just because she’s crazier than he’ll ever be, but also because she’s sharp enough to have his number — and arrogant enough to flaunt it. When she accuses him of stealing her inspirations, and he sheepishly acknowledges that everyone at art school recognized her talent, she corrects him: “Not talent! Genius!” Next to this larger-than-life siren, poor Johansson suddenly looks like a simpery mouse.
But Cruz appears late in the movie and not often enough, and the issues her character raises are never resolved. Like Wes Anderson, his rightful heir, Allen doesn’t seem to be comfortable with characters who express their emotions above a civilized murmur. Unlike Anderson, however, he doesn’t appear to have much of a clue as to how young people talk these days or what they talk about. If you can ignore its narrator and some of its tone-deaf dialogue, Vicky Cristina is a gorgeous romp through a city that seems built for art and love. But with your ears as well as your eyes open, it’s hard not to regret the more substantial film that might have been.