I am about to say something I never thought I’d ever say: I am sick and tired of “Woody’s Women.”
Those of you who have seen more than a few of Woody Allen’s movies know exactly what I mean. Woody’s Women are beautiful, intelligent, and confused, drawn vaguely toward careers in the arts with a burning if unfocused desire to be recognized in whatever métier as great artists. But they are not really certain of anything except their need for hot sex, usually (in Allen’s earlier movies) with Woody himself or (in his later movies) with Woody surrogates. Their intellectual uncertainty and emotional neediness usually doom them to failure, except as partners and helpmates to men. Louise Lasser’s character in Bananas, Allen’s second feature (Take the Money and Run, his first film, was a parody of the crime genre and thus atypical of his work to come), was the earliest sighting of a Woody’s Woman, though the classic and perfect example will always be Diane Keaton in Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall and especially Manhattan, the template for most of the Allen films to follow.
Allen has made variations on this type the hallmark of his work as a filmmaker. This includes an inversion on the character: Another Woman, Allen’s tribute to Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, in which a woman author and philosopher of great intellectual distinction comes to realize she has lived too much inside her own mind, denying life and other people in the process. (Playing this character, Gena Rowlands gives what is probably the finest performance in any Allen film, and one of the finest in the history of the American cinema.)
In Allen’s last few movies, however, his inspiration for this character has all too obviously worn thin. Melinda and Melinda presents two playwrights concocting alternative tragic and comic scenarios for an archetypal Woody’s Woman, in this instance played by Radha Mitchell. In the “tragic” version, she is fated to remain forever adrift, a Blanche du Bois manqué who must forever be looked after by others; in the “comic” version, she finds fulfillment hooking up with the Woody surrogate played by Will Ferrell. The result is a shallow pastel of a film, consisting of pale sorrows and paler laughter.
Allen travels further down this unpromising road with his latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, although it has some outstanding qualities that make it much more worth seeing than Melinda and Melinda.
In this latest variation on a theme, Allen gives the Woody role, for the first time I can think of, to a woman. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is a tartly witty, level-headed sort staying with family acquaintances in Barcelona while she pursues graduate studies. (Yet, in crucial ways, Vicky is also a Woody’s Woman; her master’s thesis is in “Catalan identity,” although she is not of Catalan extraction and barely speaks Catalan or even Spanish.) Vicky’s best friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who has tagged along to Barcelona, is a Woody’s Woman in excelsis; drawn to photography and filmmaking, Cristina has disavowed her only completed work, a short film on male-female relationships. As the obtrusive voiceover narration emphasizes, the only thing of which Cristina is certain is what she doesn’t want in a relationship with a man.
Vicky and Cristina’s Catalan days pass pleasantly in sightseeing and fine dining until the evening Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a dashing, sexy and successful painter, comes up to them in a restaurant and impulsively invites them both on a weekend trip to Oviedo. Vicky, who has a dull-but-steady businessman fiancé at home in New York, tells Juan Antonio to get lost, but the intrigued Cristina persuades her to accept.
The trip with Juan Antonio shakes up Vicky in ways she never expected, making the arrival in Barcelona of her fiancé Doug (Chris Messina) unwelcome in ways she cannot bring herself to admit. For Cristina, the trip with Juan Antonio becomes a tryst, and is everything she hopes—at least until Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio’s volatile, needy ex-wife, shows up.
Maria Elena’s arrival in the movie is as if the sun came up over the Mediterranean simultaneously with the beginning of an earthquake, which is exactly what Allen intends. Maria Elena has tried to kill herself, and Juan Antonio, multiple times; yet Juan Antonio does his best work as an artist when she’s around, and—as he freely admits—he borrowed his best ideas from her. Juan Antonio’s poet father greets Maria Elena not as a ex-daughter-in-law but as a long-lost lover. Cristina also finds herself energized by Maria Elena’s presence, both as an artist and as a lover. (Yes, all you red-blooded males in the audience, there is a lesbian kiss between Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, as well as a very strong suggestion that they follow up with a threesome with Javier Bardem. Russ Meyer, eat your heart out, wherever you are.)
Yet when Cristina feels trapped by Maria Elena’s edicts and asks out of the relationship, Maria Elena turns the full force of her fury on her. (She hurls her worst invective in Spanish, which Cristina does not understand.) Maria Elena resumes her insane fights with Juan Antonio, and when Vicky comes back on the scene, Maria Elena will not tolerate her presence.
By now it should be obvious that Allen has written M-U-S-E across Maria Elena’s forehead in flaming letters. Maria Elena is symbolic of the life force, the art force, the love force and (not least in Allen’s mind) the sex force. Juan Antonio can’t live with her or without her; he’s happier when she’s gone, but truly fulfilled only when she’s there. No one else, with the notable exception of Juan Antonio’s father, can begin to deal with her.
Some critics have seen Vicky Cristina Barcelona as a clichéd portrayal of naïve Americans unable to cope with European sexual sophistication. However, I fail to see what is so sophisticated about Maria Elena’s crazed behavior. Allen is trying to portray something completely different: the difficulty of achieving sexual and artistic fulfillment, which he sees as closely allied, or at least analogous. Many aspire to them, few attain them. Maria Elena, who personifies both, is just plain hell to get along with--even for Juan Antonio, a brilliant painter and smoldering Don Juan.
Unfortunately, because of Cruz’s scintillating performance and her volcanic chemistry with the equally vibrant Bardem, Allen makes it difficult to care about his two main characters. To put it bluntly, Vicky and Cristina are dull, and not just in comparison with Maria Elena. It must be nice to live in a world of unassailable comfort and privilege, where the worst thing that is ever going to happen to you is a vague dissatisfaction with life. Allen tries to portray Vicky and Cristina’s failures as Chekhovian tragicomedy, forgetting that Chekhov had deeper tragedy and more trenchant comedy on his mind.
Allen slips especially in his direction of Johansson, an actress he presented to much better effect in Match Point and even the minor comedy Scoop. Like Allen, I find Johansson a singularly moving screen presence, both in her heartbreakingly ripe, full-lipped beauty and her mixture of delicacy and forthrightness. But in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen gives her little to do as an actress; he simply lingers on her lovely face in ways that imply an old man’s obsession with youth and beauty. Hall isn’t treated quite this fetishistically, but she too seems adrift, as does the usually marvelous Patricia Clarkson as Vicky and Cristina’s outwardly gracious but inwardly troubled hostess.
There are three excellent reasons to see Vicky Cristina Barcelona: the wonderful performances of Cruz and Bardem and the magnificent photography of veteran cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, to whom the Tourist Board of Catalunya should pay royalties. Otherwise, the film is a lament for ambitious, intelligent but coddled people whose lives add up to nothing much.
In contrast, the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading concerns the simple-minded greed of simple-minded people who end up dead, in jail or in exile for the hubris of overestimating their own brains and importance. Reviewers are describing this extremely dark farce as a 180-degree turn from the grim determinism of the Coens’ last film, the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. But I’m not so sure.
Burn After Reading begins, progresses and ends with the humiliation of Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich). A supercilious mid-level CIA analyst with drinking and attitude problems, Cox rejects a demotion, quits the agency and decides to write his tell-all memoirs, a word he is painfully careful to pronounce with the proper French inflection. However, a CD containing compromising information about Cox is found at the local HardBodies gym, and lamebrained gym employees Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) think they can blackmail Cox with it.
Meanwhile, Cox’s bitchy wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with married Treasury marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and has secretly begun divorce proceedings against her much-unloved husband. Harry promises to divorce his wife and marry Katie; however, not satisfied with just one paramour, Harry carries on with a woman he meets via a computer dating Web site: Linda Litzke, who ignores the romantic overtures of her boss at the gym (Richard Jenkins) and his protestations that she doesn’t need the plastic surgery for which she is seeking the wherewithal from Cox.
It’s even more convoluted than it sounds, in the special way that only Joel and Ethan Coen can convolute things. In time Cox’s former boss (David Rasche) is obliged to report on the proceedings to his own superior (J.K. Simmons). “Report back to me when it all makes sense,” Simmons tells Rasche, already guessing—along with the audience—that it never will.
Stories about paranoiac people imagining an espionage conspiracy where none exists are, if not a staple of comedy, at least a recognized subgroup. (The most famous of these is the French farce The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe, which was remade in the U.S. with Tom Hanks. But even Doris Day got into the act with her comedy The Glass Bottom Boat, with Arthur Godfrey as her unlikely co-star.) The difference between those films and Burn After Reading is that with the last, there’s no hero, no one to root for or even identify with. There’s no Marge Gunderson, no Hi McDonough, no Dude Lebowski. Everyone is an idiot. The more innocent and well-meaning the particular idiot, the more likely he or she is to meet a gruesome end. When Harry Pfarrer announces at the beginning of the film that he has never fired his gun in 20 years of government service, his statement is more than a plot foreshadowing. As the Coens present it, it is destiny--or more properly, since the word “destiny” suggests a certain order to the workings of the world, fate.
Rather than another Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading resembles a farcical version of Blood Simple or The Man Who Wasn’t There, two utterly bleak (though in their own way comic) Coen films about moral and mental nitwits plotting against each other in a meaningless universe governed by blind chance. Those two movies, more than any other Coen films, served as dry runs for No Country for Old Men, and Burn After Reading—coming immediately after No Country for Old Men—inevitably recalls Karl Marx’s aphorism that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce.
A high body count, however, doesn’t prevent the extraordinarily gifted cast of Burn After Reading from having a good time with the reprehensible assortment of morons they’re playing. Bits of business from the film keep coming back to me: Linda’s eternally hopeful, wide-eyed smile; Harry’s glowing pride in the homemade sex toy (which must be seen to be believed) he keeps in his basement; Chad and Cox’s percussive, increasingly hilarious use of profanity. (Chad is too stupid to have a vocabulary; so is Cox, but he’s just smart enough to mask that deficiency as tough-guy bravado.)
It’s been no secret for decades that Woody Allen considers the universe meaningless, though he feels constrained to have one of his characters in almost every movie announce that belief outright. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it’s Juan Antonio, though it could just as easily have been Vicky, Cristina, or Maria Elena, all of whom obviously agree. However, it would have been a kick if Vicky and Cristina, on their way back to New York from Barcelona, had been routed through Washington, there to meet Harry Pfarrer and Osbourne Cox. Or, even better, if in Barcelona Juan Antonio had revealed to them his true identity: Anton Chigurh. That would have been a lesson in nihilism.