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AUGUST 18, 2008

Vicky Cristina Wherever

Woody Allen finds the Upper East Side all over; MAN ON WIRE makes an unusual trek look routine

By Mark Jenkins

Euro Crass: Penelope Cruz contrasts the innocence of Woody Allen's Americans in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. (MGM/Weinstein)

Also this week: My review of HENRY POOLE IS HERE appeared on National Public Radio's website. Clicking on the title of that film will take you to

YOU MAY, UNDERSTANDABLY, think of Woody Allen as a city guy. He's set most of his movies in New York, razzed faux-urban L.A. in Annie Hall, and even named one of his best-loved numbers Manhattan. But Allen's New York is a nostalgic fantasy, and features only a small section of the town, those tony precincts analogous to the upscale scrap of England featured in his last three films. Now he's made a movie with "Barcelona" in the title. But he still hasn't left his comfort zone.

In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the halting but amenable Scarlett Johansson is once again a not-so-innocent American abroad. She's wannabe-filmmaker Cristina, who's tagged along to the Mediterranean city with more sober pal Vicky (Rebecca Hall, a British actress whose feigned American accent gives her an apt uptightness). A post-grad student of Catalan culture, Vicky is engaged, and thus intent on resisting the sort of erotic holiday that attracts her friend. The opportunity quickly arises, when flamboyant painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) tries to simultaneously seduce both of them. Vicky says "no," Cristina says "maybe," but they both mean "yes."

While Vicky (usually) resists temptation, Cristina pursues it. She moves in with Juan Antonio, and the new couple is soon joined by Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), the volatile ex-wife who once stabbed him. Maria Elena encourages Cristina to become a photographer, and tells the American that she balances the Spanish couple's otherwise off-kilter relationship. Cristina is willing to make out with both of her new housemates, but for her the threesome is just a phase. It's Vicky who's madly in love with the suave, self-indulgent artist, even as she marries her dull American fiancé.

This wistful, quip-free comedy is Allen's least forced film in years, but that doesn't mean it's convincing. A central problem is the frequent narration, delivered by actor Christopher Evan Welch. The director may have intended the movie as a narrative experiment, but it plays more like a mistake. When Welch tells us what the characters are thinking or doing, it sounds as if he's describing scenes Allen forgot to shoot.

Beginning with his own nebbishy on-screen persona, Allen has always maintained the stand-up comedian's insistence on cliches. So it's no surprise that he presents Juan Antonio as an elegant rogue, Maria Elena as a glamorous nut — she could have walked off the screen from Almodóvar's The Purple Rose of Madrid — and Vicky and Christina as two different flavors of naive. Barcelona is beautiful, but just too, well, European for these children of Target and Coca-Cola.

Yet Vicky Cristina Barcelona doesn't feel that all that European, or at least not all that Catalonian. Yes, the film includes tourist footage of Gaudi buildings, and some amber Mediterranean light. But Allen never gets beneath the surface, or offers any authentic cultural details to distinguish his Barcelona from Kensington or the Upper East Side. The language Vicky is studying, for example, is Spanish, not Catalan.

For a better sense of the local culture wars, see Cédric Klapisch's L'Auberge Espagnole, in which French exchange students in Barcelona unhappily discover that their professor refuses to speak the hated Spanish. At one time, Allen might have paid attention to such nuances, but he no longer seems to care. His recent Euro films are mere exercises, some better than others, but none possessed of any noticeable conviction. Allen has located new sources of funding on the other side of the Atlantic, but no fresh insights.

(2008, 97 min; opened Aug. 15 at Avalon Theater, Landmark E Street, AMC Georgetown, and suburbs.)

IN AUGUST 1974, French wire-walker Philippe Petit committed an unprecedented crime: He traversed the emptiness, 1350 feet high, between the unfinished towers of Manhattan's World Trade Center. James Marsh's documentary, MAN ON WIRE, attempts to convey the boldness of Petit's stunt, but falters because it relies on overfamiliar cinematic gambits.

Petit's sky-high romp was documented only by still photos, and restaging it today would be both impossible -- the WTC is gone, of course -- and anticlimactic. So Marsh decided to emphasize not the walk but the preparations for it. The film includes talking-head interviews with Petit and his collaborators, but its framework is simulated footage of the campaign to get inside the building, elude the security guards, and stretch a cable between the hulking towers. These gauzy, black-and-white sequences are very Errol Morris, to the point that their derivativeness becomes distracting.

Even more irksome is Marsh's musical schema, which toggles between two composers. There is other some music in the film, but Petit's wire work is accompanied by Satie's gentle piano ripplings, while the breaking-and-entering reconstructions are driven by Michael Nyman's minimalist-baroque score to Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract. Man on Wire includes moving moments, conveying both Petit's exultation and his comrades's simultaneous sense of relief and loss at the walk's success. Such epiphanies are rare, however. Rather than finding a suitably unbridled way to tell Petit's story, Marsh has confined it within structures borrowed from previous movies.

(2008, 90 min; opened Aug. 8 at Landmark E Street & Bethesda, American Film Institute Silver Theater, and suburbs.)