Woody Allen discussed his work habits in the current Newsweek: He makes films not because he feels a powerful need to communicate or the flame of inspiration flares high, but so he can stay busy. Otherwise, he'd be overwhelmed by the bleakness of life, which amounts to a pleasureless existence followed by an eternity as a handful of dust. “I need to be focused on something, so I don't see the big picture,” he averred.
That explains his robotic productivity over 40 years and his recycling of themes he explored as deeply as he was able long ago. But seldom has his naval-gazing produced so little effect as in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”
It takes place over a long summer in Spain, where four characters couple and uncouple without producing the slightest change in each other. (One ends the movie less happily than she expected, but she soon would have been sadly disillusioned anyway.)
The title refers to New Yorkers Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who visit the Spanish city. They're propositioned by Juan Antonio, a bohemian painter (Javier Bardem), and both sleep with him. As they work out their feelings, his deranged ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), attempts suicide and moves in with him to recuperate.
Allen's laziness is startling, even in so mechanical a filmmaker. He uses a monotonous narrator to tell us what the characters think and do, though he then shows them performing the actions that have just been described.
All four main characters are stereotypes that deviate scarcely an inch from their templates. Juan Carlos is the amoral, seductive Latin lover, Maria Elena the hot and hot-tempered Latina consumed by jealousy. Cristina is a childish would-be filmmaker swayed by her emotions into bad decisions, while Vicky's an uptight intellectual who doesn't listen to her feelings. (Is Allen trying to mock her? She speaks no Spanish, but she's getting a master's degree in Catalan culture – though she doesn't know how to pronounce that word!)
The performances partly redeem the dialogue, though the pleasure-loving Bardem seems absurd mouthing Allen's phrases about the meaninglessness of life. Johansson here completes her Allen trilogy, which began with the riveting “Match Point” and descended to “Scoop.” She can now move on to a director who burns to make a film.