[Screen It]

(2008) (Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson) (PG-13)

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Drama: Two American friends with different views on love and adventure end up falling for the same painter while spending the summer in Barcelona.
Americans Vicky (REBECCA HALL) and Cristina (SCARLETT JOHANSSON) have been friends since college, but they couldn't be more different. While Vicky longs for an ordered life and is engaged to businessman Doug (CHRIS MESSINA), Cristina is only certain of what she doesn't want, and that's a conventional life. Both are spending the summer in Barcelona staying with Judy (PATRICIA CLARKSON) and Mark Nash (KEVIN DUNN) who take them to an art gallery where they spot local painter JosÚ Antonio (JAVIER BARDEM).

Word is that his then-wife tried to kill him, a tidbit that draws Cristina's interest, particularly when they spot him in a restaurant later that night. The attraction is mutual, as the painter introduces himself to the two friends, offering them a weekend trip of wine drinking and love making.

Vicky is appalled at the blunt approach, but that only makes him even more enticing to Cristina who convinces her friend to tag along for the weekend jaunt. But she ends up getting food poisoning before they consummate the act, thus forcing Vicky to play tourist with JosÚ and eventually find him attractive. Influenced by wine, she sleeps with him, a development that leaves her confused about Doug who's arrived in Barcelona hoping to marry her there in a civil ceremony before a traditional wedding back home.

Cristina eventually ends up dating and then moving in with JosÚ, but that new relationship is threatened upon the return of his ex-wife, Maria Elena (PENELOPE CRUZ), who's just tried to kill herself. From that point on, Cristina tries to deal with her staying with them, all as Vicky tries to deal with her feelings toward him as well.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Regular readers of these reviews know yours truly has various pet peeves about certain sorts of films as well as filmmaking techniques, and one of the biggest is an objection to the use of voice-over narration. While it sometimes works and/or is acceptable (see "American Beauty," "The Shawshank Redemption") more often than not it's simply a crutch that allows the storyteller an easy way out of creating or demonstrating character behavior, delivering exposition, or moving the tale forward by filling in the gaps between what we're otherwise shown. The worst offenders are the examples that do just that, but also tell the viewer what they already know or see, thus coming off as both annoying and redundant.

Such is the case in "Vicki Cristina Barcelona," the latest look at love, desire and all of the things that can go wrong with both from director Woody Allen, clearly no stranger to that sort of subject matter. Decent but otherwise instantly forgettable (akin to viewing someone's vacation photos or videos), the pic kicks off with such narration that then pops up from time to time to remind us of what we already know.

What makes it somewhat interesting, however, is the tonal quality of said narration. Rather than coming from one of the characters, it's an anonymous voice that sounds like David Hyde Pierce doing a male impersonation of the female narrator on TV's "Desperate Housewives" trying to impart somewhat of a whimsical if cautionary fable tone to the proceedings. The vocal work's actually from Christopher Evan Welch, but the unusual cadence and tone ultimately don't amount to anything and end up only adding to the annoyance of hearing the unnecessary vocal baggage.

That forced whimsical tone certainly doesn't fit in with the rest of the pic that's otherwise a straightforward drama as melded with a touristy travelogue. For the fourth time in a row, Allen (who used to stick to Manhattan like a Siamese twin until his American financial backers eventually gave up on him) has shot this film overseas, and the result is certainly gorgeous to behold (perhaps some production Euros came from the Barcelona tourism board).

And like many of his previous films, Allen also continues his trend of examining romantic and sexual angst, most notably revolving around female characters. While it's been noted that the director does write some of the meatiest roles for actresses to sink their teeth into, he also rarely portrays them in any sort of flattering light. The same can be said true for many of his male characters, but they're usually comfortable in their skin, whereas the women are emotional wrecks who serve as the catalysts for their own and/or others' troubles.

While both of the characters played by Javier Bardem and Allen's actress of the moment, Scarlett Johansson, are sexually promiscuous, he's viewed as a charming, devil-may-care Don Juan who gets what he wants, while she's portrayed as something a slut whose defining quality is only knowing what she doesn't want out of life (and thus ultimately ends up unhappy).

Rebecca Hall plays her more conservative friend who's about to get married to a seemingly good guy and looks down on the Spanish painter's sexual forwardness toward both of them. Yet, she ends up cheating on her fiancÚ and then longs for JosÚ Antonio despite deeming the tryst a one-time thing. Even the seemingly more stable wife character played by Patricia Clarkson ends up cheating on her husband.

And then there's the dervish she-devil played by Penelope Cruz. While she's quite good in the part, her character's the most mentally unhinged of the bunch, a manic-depressive who leans more toward the former quality while making life a mixture of hell and heaven for Bardem and Johansson's characters as they delve into an unlikely and only temporary threesome.

Hall certainly fares better than Johansson, but what's interesting is that their characters are constantly overshadowed by Bardem and Cruz's, making one wish they were the main characters rather than the other way around (or that Allen would have shifted the main focus over to them somewhere along the way).

Allen's fans may disagree, but the fact that we don't really care about the Americans and their romantic plights ends up stealing the film's thunder, although the fact that this territory has previously been traversed by the filmmaker countless times also doesn't help make it particularly noteworthy. At least the anonymous narrator doesn't inform and thus remind us of just that. Pretty but only moderately engaging and/or entertaining, "Vicki Cristina Barcelona" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 15, 2008 / Posted August 15, 2008

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