Neurotic and directionless, pretty but appallingly vacant, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a sugar-free, fat-free diet slice of life. Set in a city much more dynamic than its characters, the film transposes the textbook female quarter-life crisis across the Atlantic into Catalonia, where the beautiful scenery of Barcelona leaves the viewer unprepared for the volley of clichés that director Woody Allen is about to launch.
Immediately the briskly clipped words of the narrator cut through lazy, golden-hued panoramas of the title city, spoiling the mood accumulating behind the majestic vistas and Spanish guitars. The voice begins to grate after about thirty seconds, as the listener gets the unshakable impression the narrator is patting himself on the back for being so relentlessly clever in his glib descriptions of Vicky, Cristina, and their respective circumstances. With this unrelenting refusal to let the film speak for itself—often, the characters are silenced as the narrator speaks, helplessly moving their mouths like goldfish trapped in a cinematic bowl—Vicky Cristina sometimes resembles an obnoxious tourist’s slideshow more than a film.
The shallow exploration of Barcelona as a “character” in the film does not help Vicky’s paper-thin character gain any sympathy, either—aside from a few shots of her in the library and vague references to a long-standing infatuation with the architecture of Antonio Gaudi, the setting could be any other picturesque, historical European city. Vicky may find Catalan guitar music “magical,” but the narrator has to explain her enchantment in the absence of any real acting on the part of Rebecca Hall.
Hall’s proclivity for staring off into space necessarily detracts from any solid interpretation of these stares, rendered ineffective from overuse. Scarlett Johansson, playing Cristina, surpasses even Hall in the number of times she whips out the all-purpose blank stare, and so the narrator is summoned from his back-patting reverie to explain her every thought and feeling.
While an intrusive narrator is acceptable in moderation, Vicky Cristina’s quickly reaches a saturation point and actively bars the film from showing instead of telling. This narrator is a light switched on during an intimate moment—whenever a mood begins to congeal out of the lamentably shallow dialogue, the narrator cheerily smashes it. In a leering aside, during a smoldering scene between Vicky and Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, whose talent as evidenced in No Country for Old Men is pitifully squandered here), the narrator finds it necessary to report that “an awkward moment occurred.”
Woody Allen’s legendary neurosis is apparently not content to allow the viewer to draw her own conclusions, lest she think for herself and actually walk out of the movie. Though Allen himself does not appear in the film, the narrator acts as a convenient baby-sitter figure, never letting the viewer get too close to the story—or letting it be much of a story, for that matter.
Finally, Penelope Cruz as Juan Antonio’s half-psychotic ex-wife Maria Elena injects the film with a modicum of intrigue. She is introduced via a botched suicide attempt and continues to dominate whatever scene she enters, completely eclipsing the anemically-acted Cristina even in the gratuitous lesbian-experimentation scene in the darkroom.
Not to be outdone, the narrator smarmily creeps his way into one of the film’s most egregious lines: “It continued predictably until an unpredictable moment occurred.” Later in the film, when Juan Antonio has been abandoned by both Cristina and Maria Elena and it seems Vicky might have some chance at finding true happiness instead of wallowing in the consequences of her safe yet feeble decision to marry the white-bread Doug (Chris Messina), the predictable reappearance of Maria Elena with a pistol incites only a yawn. Woody Allen has succeeded in making even sexy women with firearms dull.
There is a sense of crawling dissatisfaction that pervades the film, frustrating because it almost never motivates the characters to do anything to alter their lives. From Vicky’s dissatisfaction with her dull husband, Doug, a banker for whom suburban homes, golf, and interior decoration are the stuff of which exciting conversation is made, to Cristina’s listless drift first to Barcelona on the heels of Vicky and then to France when her seemingly picture-perfect ménage-a-trois with Juan Antonio and Maria Elena fails to fill some ill-defined void within her, the so-called conflicts in the two main characters’ lives stem more from their own directionless apathy than from any real difficulties.
By the end of the film, nothing really has changed—Cristina, as the narrator cheerfully reminds us, still knows only what she doesn’t want, while Vicky is destined to become just another dissatisfied suburban wife. Neither are truly happy, but the viewer certainly doesn’t care, as she has been checking her watch for the last half hour.
The film thus stumbles around aimlessly for so long that it ends up right where it began—facedown in a monstrous soup of urban ennui. Maybe Vicky Cristina Barcelona should have been filmed in 3-D.