I remember watching, long ago, a movie called Alex and Emma, which was a love story between a writer and his stenographer. It was a fairly enjoyable movie, with good chemistry between the two (the guy, after all, was Luke Wilson, the best actor I know of in B-movies). And then there was the book Alex was dictating to Emma; it was a horrible book, and we got to hear parts of it narrated by Luke Wilson. It wasn’t that the writing was bad as such, but it was eminently ordinary, something a little worse than J. K. Rowling. This is exactly what Woody Allen’s narration in Vicky Cristina Barcelona reminded me of.
There are two ways narration can spoil a movie. One we can see in adaptations of little children’s books, like Horton Hears A Who by Dr. Seuss, where narration lifted right out of the source unfailingly reminds you of the infinitely superior, infinitely smaller original. Not that the movie is bad; it’s just that the original is so good that the only way the movie has a chance of working is if you aren’t reminded of the original. The other we can see in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, where the narration is so eminently ordinary, and for the most part unnecessary, that it distracts you from an otherwise good movie, with above average dialogues.
The movie is about best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson, not as good a performance as I have come to expect), who have come to Barcelona for the summer. Vicky is an eminently normal person, engaged to a, fairly nice, yuppie. Cristina, on the other hand, is your cheerleader from high school, who only enjoys steamy, unstable relationships. Also, she has just finished a twelve-minute movie she has been working on. When asked what the movie was about, she says it was about why love is so hard to explain. She gets the reply, “awfully big subject for twelve minutes, isn’t it?” And, now, we know what the movie is about. Great. This could have been a one-minute movie with just this exchange, and it would have said only a little less than the whole movie. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the movie can be summed up in one question, but why – oh why – do we need to be reminded about it? And can you imagine how irritating this was after that horrible narration?
They meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem; yes, the same one from No Country For Old Men; completely takes the cake), there’s weird entanglements involving the three of them and Antonio’s ex-wife (Penelope Cruz), and so on. It is really well done, except by – as I’ve already noted – Johanssen, who gives merely an average performance.
Except, you know, the narration. It is even more irritating than me repeatedly bringing it up here. Suffice it to say that:
a) halfway into the movie, the only reason I was finishing it was so that I could write my first ever bad review.
b) I was wondering how this movie would be if you exchanged the two leads.
Finally, I should mention the background score, which consists of one Spanish song. One song scores can work, like in Requiem for a Dream. It’s just that even though it was a pretty nice song – especially when the singer said the word ‘Barcelona’ – I really felt that some more mood-modulation by music would have done the movie wonders.
And, before I round up this review, I ought to observe that the later part of the movie is actually pretty good, what with the (relative) lack of the narrator. Except for one revelation that I felt was given ambiguity that was resolved in two minutes, which was rather stupid.