Not long ago -- round about the time of Deconstructing Harry, say -- it was banal to point out that Woody Allen's best years were far behind him. Blowjobs and couchtrips had served Philip Roth slightly better than they had his cinematic doppelganger, and it showed. Then along came a kitchen sink drama of English arrivisme and Dostoyevskian conscience-wrangling called Match Point, and suddenly everything old was new again. The Woodman was back. He'd found a new muse in the vapid but sultry Scarlett Johansson and a new city for his autumnal auterism--London. Up to a point, Lord Copper. For Match Point was followed by a trifling ghost story and complete waste of Ian McShane called Scoop, which was then succeeded by the instantly capsized fraternal crime thriller Cassandra's Dream. If you don't quite recall those two non-starters then perhaps it's because you weren't meant to. Allen aficianados would have you believe that he and Soon Yi chartered a nonstop RyanAir flight from Heathrow to Aeropuerto de Barcelona, discovered Penelope Cruz -- a dark, plate-throwing, grade-A meshugana temptress of the non-Semitic variety -- and alighted upon another overseas locale worth mining for inspiration. James Wolcott disagrees:
Put this movie [Vicky Cristina Barcelona] up against Whit Stillman's Barcelona, and it comes in a lame, distant second, Stillman's bustling scenario and sparky dialogue making Allen's script look like Neil Simon filing from the retirement home. The imaginative depths of Allen's characterization is signaled by Rebecca Hall's Vicky being the sensible one because she's the brunette; Scarlett Johansson's bad-dye-bob blondeness presumably explains her susceptibilities, though it doesn't explain her inert performance. Penelope Cruz received an Academy Award for her performance here, and I hope she treasures her Oscar because it was an act of generosity on the voters' part. Yes, she's the best thing in VCB, bristling, tempestuous, and alive (with raccoon eyes and a sharp little bite), but being the best thing in this movie is no major feat, requiring no great plunging depths of expression and emotion; she and Javier Bardem's sexy-sleepy seducer are both cultural cliches whose smoldering passions and flare-ups are out of a Latin lovers playbook.
If we only heard from Stillman once every five years (instead of never again), his would be cheques worth cashing against Allen's deadbeat annual installments. Wolcott sifts through some of the DOA dialogue of VCP, which anagram sounds like something you'd pick up in a balmy port of call, and invites you to stay home this season:
"The next day Maria Elena went out photographing with Cristina. She had a superb eye and knew a lot about the art of photography and taught Cristina much about the aesthetics and subtleties of picture-taking," "Later, they bought candy and cakes at a charming sweet shop, which were homemade and delicious," "He took her to lunch with his friends, who were poets and artists and musicians. Cristina held her own quite well."
Compare to Fred and Ted Boynton scamming Catalan trade fair girls at the tail-end of the Cold War:
Ted: Spanish girls tend to be really promiscuous.
Fred: You're such a prig.
Ted: No, I wasn't using "promiscuous" pejoratively. It's just a fact. They have completely different attitudes toward sex.
Fred: Well, I wasn't using "prig" pejoratively.
Or doing Eric Auerbach proud in what has to be my favorite exchange in Barcelona:
Fred: Maybe you can clarify something for me. Since I've been, you know, waiting for the fleet to show up, I've read a lot, and...
Fred: And one of the things that keeps popping up is this about "subtext." Plays, novels, songs - they all have a "subtext," which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that's right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what's above the subtext?
Ted: The text.
Fred: OK, that's right, but they never talk about that.
I once had the pleasure of suggesting to Jonathan Yardley that the second and third films in Stillman's "Doomed. Bourgeois. In Love" trilogy were worth bothering about. So devoted a critic was he to Metropolitan that he feared witnessing the filmmaker's lapse into mediocrity with the real and scripted progression of time. That never happened, of course, but it has been eleven years since The Last Days of Disco came out, and another middle-class boom has gone bust with plenty of downwardly mobile casualties to wax Fitzgeraldian about.
Isn't it time to return to the camera, Whit?