“…and God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write a voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of a character.”
-Brian Cox as Robert McKee, “ADAPTATION”
I hate voice over. Of course I could list a number of great films that employ it. It can work. Most of the time however, it is a cheap way to explain the thoughts of the characters because we the audience are too stupid to understand it. The time honored rule of cinema is: show, dont’ tell. VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA is Woody Allen’s 43rd film and honestly, he should know better.
When that completely unnecessary voice over narration began, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this:
What a GREAT use of voice over. And by the same writer/director. This is from MANHATTAN, Allen’s best work (this blog’s banner photo is lifted from the film) and the opening voice over begins the film on just the right note. MANHATTAN opens with Woody narrating how he will start the opening chapter of his book. He loves Manhattan. So much so that he can’t seem to find the words. It’s not just a city to him. It’s a black and white Gershwin blaring playground. This opening voice over introduces Woody’s valentine to the city he loves and also provides a window into his rambling, impulsive, scatterbrained personality. Imagine if during key scenes the voice over returned to say “Mary and Isaac found their way into the planetarium on a rainy day. They wandered in and out of the shadows as their playful banter hinted at a potential romance.” I didn’t need Woody to tell me he had fun with his son at the Russian Tea Room, I didn’t need him to tell me that Tracy was sad when he dumped her at the soda fountain and I don’t need him to tell me what Vicky and Cristina were thinking when they got back from their weekend with Juan Antonio Gonzalez. I’m not a mental defective. I can see it and feel it. Woody knew better then and he should know better now.
As MANHATTAN is a love letter to that city, it is said VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA is Woody’s love letter to Spain. Woody should take the next flight back to NYC. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are two American tourists visiting Spain when they are approached by a slick painter (Javier Bardem) in a restaurant. He invites them to get in his plane and fly to a smaller Spanish island where they will eat great food, drink great wine and sleep with each other. Vicky is about to be engaged and is more grounded and responsible while Cristina is more free spirited and adventurous. How do I know this? Because the voice over told me so. The romance unfurls and things get more complicated when Bardem’s emotionally unstable ex-wife re-enters the picture (Penelope Cruz).
VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA is filled with stereotypes and cookie cutters. The dashing and suave European painter. The realistic and grounded brunette coupled with the free wheeling blonde (think Betty and Veronica only reversed). The fiery Latina. Hall and Cruz do great things with under written parts but these don’t feel like real people, just symbols.
This is the third film that features Woody’s new “muse”, Scarlett Johansson. She continues to be a wooden actress who is in over her head in every scene. She struggles to keep up with Hall, Bardem and Cruz to the point of distraction. Thank god Woody didn’t fall in love with Scarlett during the 70s when he was at his peak. It would have been like playing Mozart on a cheap plastic violin with a broken string. Of all his female inspirations: Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow and now Scarlett, one stands out like a sore thumb. Woody would be wise to end this relationship.
VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA is about passion vs. comfortability. Is it better to have a relationship based on security and dependability or one based on passion and spontinaity? This topic has been done before and produced better films. Woody seems to be grasping at straws at this point in his career. His “comeback” film, MATCH POINT was a solid work but it was a complete retread of CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. This once great artist has lost his touch and run out of ideas.
It would be interesting to see what the reception of Woody’s recent films would be if we didn’t know they were made by Woody Allen. I still don’t think I would consider VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA a success, but maybe I wouldn’t resent it. I will continue to remember Woody for MANHATTAN, ANNIE HALL, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, BANANAS, EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX, MIGHTY APHRODITE etc.