' Cinema Romantico: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Monday, September 08, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Innate setpoints. This was a term used by Ethan Hawke in 2004's "Before Sunset", as in people all have "innate setpoints" from which they tend not to deviate too much. I've always loved it. In fact, I went so far as to title a screenplay of mine Innate Setpoints. I'm not sure there are two words one could use to better summarize human nature. And Woody Allen's 445th feature film (note: I made that up) is a full-on exploration of that notion.

We get sense of our primary characters innate setpoints within a lunch and then a dinner at the start of the first act. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johannson) have come to Barcelona to spend the summer with Vicky's relatives, Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and Mark (Kevin Dunn). What inevitable, god-awful question does Mark pose to each of them before they've seemingly even had to time to take a sip of wine? "What do you do?" (Aaaaargh!!!) Cristina replies, "I'm at liberty." Vicky, on the other hand, has come to do work on her masters degree in "Catalan Theory" and to this Mark poses an even worse follow-up question: "What do you do with that?" Not, why that? Or what interests you in that? But, what do you do with that? As the real-life Bill Murray once observed when asked to discuss his career path, " Are you trying to make me gag?"

But, seriously, this scene establishes our two heroines for who they are: Vicky is grounded and with a plan, a goal for which to shoot, regardless of whether or not she truly believes it to be the right decision. This, too, is underscored by her impending marriage to Doug (Chris Messina), back home in NYC, who calls up Vicky at all hours and quickly establishes his sort of character by declaring, "What's up, babe?" Cristina, on the other hand, is flighty, adventurous, unwilling to be tied down to one thing that will define her, someone who doesn't necessarily know what she wants but sure as heck knows "what she doesn't want".

Later that night, after the quartet has attended a function at an art museum, Vicky and Cristina dine together and who should approach their table but the dashing Spanish painter Juan Antonio, looking suspiciously like Javier Bardem. (By the way, based on the version of Barcelona we see here everyone appears to be a writer or photographer or painter or sculptor or composer or poet or flamenco guitarist. Are there no businessmen? No pencil-pushers? No custodians? No line cooks? No - gasp - financial company employees?) Reveling in his un-Americanness he wastes nary a split-second on useless small talk and instead wonders if they will accompany him via plane to another Spanish town where he must see a sculpture that inspires him and then, perhaps, the three of them can romp together through the boudoir.

Needless to say, Vicky is instantly turned off and Cristina is instantly turned on. Cristina wins out, maybe because the movie would be less exciting if she didn't. The projected course, however, for this unique threesome goes wayward, as it must, and Vicky finds herself questioning what she's made with her life while Cristina will eventually move in with Juan Antonio.

All this would be well and good for a fine, little movie but midway through Allen sends a jolt of engery, life, vim, vigor, charisma, pasion (!) knifing through the goings-on in the form of Juan Antonio's unstable ex-wife (she tried to stab poor Juan Antonio right before their divorce) Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz, offering the most glamorous headcase you ever did see). She turns back up at Juan Antonio's pad through an unfortunate circumstance, glowering at Cristina over breakfast, her hair in a frightful yet mesmerizing way, a cigarette burning in her hand. In all the films where I had previously seen her never had I heard Ms. Cruz turn up the volume so loud. Her adamant, profanity-laced disagreements with Juan Antonio make for riveting theater and left me wishing a bit that we'd received more screen time for this unstable beauty queen. There is a lot of life blowing through "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" but Maria Elena is a frickin' November gale on the Great Lakes. She merely ups the ante a considerable degree and makes all the questions already asked even harder to answer.

Twists and turns are aplenty and are not for me to reveal, but one brilliant decision by Allen that makes the movie truly distinct is in the voice-over by Christopher Evan Welch. The most interesting item I've ever read relating to how one goes about writing voice-over is this: If you take it out and the movie still makes sense, keep it in. Well, if you removed the voice-over from "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" it would still make sense and that's why keeping it in makes it so great. It presents the movie with a documentary feel, as if the narrator is watching over all these people and reporting back to us with his findings on human nature.

What he seems to find is that it doesn't necessarily matter where you put people or who they meet or what they do or how much wine they drink because we're all tethered to those innate setpoints and, whether we can bring ourselves to admit it or not, we'll drift back to them eventually.

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