I like Larry David and have long found Curb Your Enthusiasm quite funny if painfully acerbic; I used to like Woody Allen’s films and wait for the new mix of comedy and ideas. And there in lies the problem: this is neither Curb Your Enthusiasm nor one of Allen’s sharper comedies from the past. Instead, it is a soft flow of stereotypes that have their moments and are good for a some laughs, but it is really a flat movie that David isn’t quite capable of pulling off. While he is an acerbic misanthrope, there never seems to be any dynamics to the misanthropy and though that might be David’s natural state, it doesn’t make for the most interesting watching. If comedy is timing, it is also dynamics, the interplay between mania and normalcy. I also found the dimwitted Southerner a little tedious and an overblown stereotype only topped by the stereotype of the bible toting Southerner. While it may be a delicious send up of the religious right to have the bible toting Southerners either come out of the closet or begin a mange-a-tois when they get to the big city (yet another cliché), it just seemed to be a piling on of absurd scenes all to make his point: you have to do what ever works to find love. While this might be a little simplistic, it does have possibilities, it just too bad Allen had to string to together so many scenes that were neither funny, nor insightful. When the title explains the move, perhaps there isn’t much reason to go.
Vickie Christina Barcelona should probably have been called Vickie Christina New York, since Barcelona has little to do with the film and New York, the alter ego of Woody Allen, is really where the movie should have been set. The film is filled with his usual preoccupations: failed relationships and the quixotic quest for happiness in a relationship. While Crimes and Misdemeanors and Deconstructing Harry weren’t necessarily funny, they were more they were more than just the light exotic fantasy that Vickie Christina Barcelona is.
Perhaps if the movie wasn’t so full of clichés it might have been a better movie. The first and most egregious was Penélope Cruz’s dark haired bundle of fire. The feisty, dark haired Spanish woman who is only interested in fighting but who can channel her passions to become the most intense lover, is an old cliché. Perhaps Allen had just seen Carmen when he wrote the movie? Then there is Bardem, the Spanish man, in other words, the Spanish lover who chases anything with a skirt, a cliché that only lets Allen explore his real interest, Vickie and Cristina. He is not interested in Spain, but a stereotype of Spain that lets him play with his real interests.
Unfortunately, the clichés are really the only Spanish elements in the film. Except for the occasional Spanish guitar music (which was often out of place: Catalan music in Oviedo, Spanish in Barcelona), the film might as well have been shot in New York. Yet had the film been shot in New York it would have had its own clichés that still would make the film one of his lesser efforts.
What makes the film weakest is Vickie and Christina are obscured by Bardem and Cruz and never really have a chance to be more than Americans on a lark. One has an affair the other a menage a trois, and both escape from their ordinary lives. The escapes, however, tell you little and though confusing for them, they are meant to be liberating as the women find themselves in the midst of new adventures. The escapes are contrasted against Judy, another American, who doesn’t love her husband. She is the antipathy of Christina—she wants adventure but is afraid to be free. Yet she is the more real character. The other two are on vacation and just as Bardem is something exotic, the freedom they have in Barcelona is the idealized freedom one feels in a city where one neither has to work nor to try to really belong.
In the hands of a lesser director the film would have been terrible, but Allen is able to make the film seem interesting despite the narration that instead of being cleaver, seems banal. Ultimately though, cliché and fantasy sinks the film.