Saturday, February 14, 2009

Packing (Latino) heat

Scarlett Johansson should really stop accepting roles in movies that pit her against far more talented actresses (such as Natalie Portman in The Other Boleyn Girl), because she just ends up looking pitifully inadequate. Even her looks, which she banks on more than her very limited range as a thespian, suffer from comparison with the likes of Penelope Cruz, who positively smolders in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and leaves Johansson-- and even co-star Rebecca Hall, who was radiant in Frost/Nixon-- looking pretty pathetic.

Hall and Johansson play best friends Vicky and Cristina, respectively, who while spending a summer in Barcelona get swept off their feet by seductive Spanish artist Juan Antonio (the muy talentoso, muy caliente Javier Bardem). But Vicky is engaged and too principled-- and scared-- to acknowledge her feelings, and Cristina's whirlwind romance with Juan Antonio is disrupted by the arrival of his dangerously volatile ex-wife Maria Elena (Cruz). As soon as Maria Elena enters the picture, the whole movie comes to life with passion, humor, and wild beauty. I was absolutely delighted with Cruz's performance and how her character manages to be a fierce firebrand, self-destructive loose cannon, and soulful artist all in one sultry, gorgeous package (Johansson and Hall look like stale white bread next to her).

I also loved how every time real-life paramours Bardem and Cruz are in a scene together, the screen threatens to burst into flame with the heat generated by their fiery exchanges, especially when they launch into their native Spanish, which sounds even sexier during a heated argument. The audience doesn't need either Vicky or Cristina to point out the obvious that Juan Antonio is still in love with his ex-wife, nor is it a stretch to imagine that Bardem and Cruz are just as in love with each other when the cameras stop rolling.

If Cruz is the soul of VCB, then Bardem is its heart. His Juan Antonio is no mere Latino hottie; there is a depth to his charm (also on display in the film adaptation of Love in the Time of Cholera) that makes it totally believable that even someone as level-headed as Vicky could fall for him. All 3 female protagonists play off his character, and while only Cruz really succeeds in creating anything larger-than-life from that dynamic, the masterful Bardem still draws some fairly credible acting from both Hall and Johansson. However, left to their own devices, Vicky and Cristina combined are less interesting than the stunning Barcelona sights highlighted to full effect throughout the movie.

I've never fully appreciated Woody Allen as a filmmaker, and it baffles me how Scarlett Johansson seems to be his muse, having already starred in several of his movies. But thanks primarily to Penelope Cruz (who fully deserved her BAFTA win for Best Supporting Actress), I found VCB sensually captivating and an enjoyable film overall. I give VCB three and 3/4 stars... deducting 1/4 for Johansson's predictably blah presence.


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