For more than a decade, Woody had been coasting, making mediocrities such as Scoop (2006) and Cassandra Dreaming (2007). Other movies, such as Melinda and Melinda (2004), had insight, but they had little substance or heft.
It seemed that Woody's long run as a major auteur was over. His career seemed to be set for a rocking chair. But then came the artistic, inventive Match Point (2005).
Now Woody is back in brilliant form. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which Allen wrote and directed but again did not act in, is Woody at the top of his game.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a romantic comedy about some of the choices love offers us, but it's also about the bleak side of romantic comedy. It's profound about the choices we face, seize or try to avoid. Does one pursue love even though that pursuit may be reckless? It's probably a question many of us have faced. Do you settle or not?
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is very much about the human condition, not just of provincial New Yorkers, but of all of us. That's why reviewers who call Woody's new movie "a trifle", probably never have been in love.
Also, many reviewers who have carped about the narration of Christopher Evan Welch in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, do not realize that Allen is using the late Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962) as a major source. It too had a narrator who seemed as though he was the detached voice of Fate.
Going back to Truffaut's classic has reenergized Woody Allen's sensibility, style, and vision. From Jules and Jim, Allen has culled the menage a trois, lyrical settings, the folly in communication, and the fortuitous nature of life and love.
In 1978 in creating the stark Interiors, Woody accessed Ingmar Bergman. Now he's accessed another international master filmmaker: Francois Truffaut.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the story of two young women from New York who visit Barcelona, Spain, for the summer. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) who is engaged to be married, wants to do research for a thesis on Catalan culture. Her friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is recovering from a romantic break-up and is looking for new experiences. In Barcelona, the intrepid duo meets Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a pleasure-seeking painter, and the fun and fury flourish and flounder.
Woody is blessed with a wonderful cast. Hall is the daughter of British theater and film director Peter Hall. Although a Brit, Hall is quite believable as a New Yorker. She is logical, composed, and sure of herself. At least she thinks she is.
Johansson fulfills a difficult role as Cristina, who is sometimes callow but also independent.
Penelope Cruz as Maria Elena, the former wife of Juan Antonio, is moody and fiery, in a performance that may garner her an Oscar nomination.
Bardem, warm and bemused, cool and collected, portrays the man who affects the natures of the three women. He's a pleasure seeker, but he's also decent and tries to keep relationships on an even keel. Silly man.
Chris Messina plays Doug, Vicky's New York-based fiance, who is very genial and confidently shallow. Patricia Clarkson shines as Vicky's relative in Barcelona, who tries to live vicariously through Vicky.
All the roles are multi-dimensional. Love is not simple. One of the most potent characters is Barcelona itself. Gaudi architectural designs, the Miro Museum, winding ways, the provincial town of Oviedo, and picturesque countryside all make for an evocative natural tapestry.
The cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe and the local music by Giulia y Los Tellarini intoxicate the senses. But most of all, the wizardry of Woody Allen creates a world that is provocative and human.
Welcome back. Senor Woody.
It's been way too long.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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