Woody Allen's forty-second feature comes off as uninspired as the notes-on-a-napkin title he gave it. A cinematic lifer, Allen's had his ups & downs, his periods & interests, but the current era seems to be the one where our director is truly floating adrift. Save for the underrated Scoop and parts of Melinda and Melinda, Allen hasn't made a good film since 2000's Small Time Crooks. This judgment isn't coming from a Woody hater, far from it. I love the guy. I will go to war for his 90's films that critics often slag off.
What I think he's done - specifically from Match Point on - is taken the redundant criticisms to heart and tried to reinvent himself as a "mature" filmmaker. Perhaps it is Allen's filming in Europe that's stunted the independent instincts he once held as an American artist. It is much more charming to watch Allen's homages/tributes to European film (September, Interiors, Stardust Memories etc.) than it is watching him try to be European. Notice Vicky Cristina Barcelona's forced Gaudi, Catalan acoustic guitar, and Spanish poetry references, then compare that to the New York city buildings, Jazz, and E.E. Cummings inclusions in Hannah In Her Sisters.
This false sense of self comes through in Vicky Cristina when Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) settles into domestication with Juan Antonio. The narrator says, "Cristina considered herself an expatriate, one more in tune with European culture and now less affected by American materialism." (Hmmm, funny how her and Juan Antonio live in a house full of furnishings and niceties...). Thing is, I don't think Allen meant for this to come off as a sly joke.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona tells a fable of two NYC twentysomethings who set off on an international quest for clarity yet end up back at square one once the fun is done. BFF, but polar opposites when it comes to love, Vicky first enters our frame in black dress, while Cristina is in white. Vicky craves grounded commitment, while Cristina is a bit of a skank. But instead of exploring the benefits/trappings of these paths, Allen simply sets them up as prey for the Latino lover, Juan Antonio. Yep, he scores the Madonna and the whore. Mix in the schizo-sexy weapon wielding ex, and my man is hitting for the Triple Crown.
Yet here again, Allen is out of his league. He's not an erotic filmmaker. There are no sparks when Allen crafts a three-way darkroom kissing scene between Scarlett, Javier, and Penelope. In fact, this moment - shot under red lights - makes you yearn for the scene in Annie Hall where Alvy tries to spice up sex with Annie by putting a red light bulb into the bedside lamp ("I brought a little erotic artifact to give the place a flavor of old New Orleans... and, of course, we can develop photos afterwards.").
In the end, it's hard for me to really care where Woody goes from here and/or what he decides to do with his career. He's already established himself as a godhead, in my book, so if the man wants to make an seven-hour biopic about some jazz legend, so be it. He's the cinematic equivalent of R.E.M. to me. I'm already sold, the seduction is complete. The name's been etched on the golden challis above my bed. The love will never be perfect, but it's unconditional.