You can’t claim that Woody Allen’s rapid rate of production doesn’t show. Even the title of his latest handiwork sounds more like brainstorming for a title than like a final decision, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Three names off the chalkboard of keywords. Vicky and Cristina, two separate people, are dissimilar American friends, the first pragmatic and steady, the second capricious and restless, together visiting Barcelona for the summer. (Allen’s British sojourn seems to be over, though he’s not ready to come home.) The young women are picked up in tandem by a brooding Catalan artist with a legendarily tempestuous love life, flown off to Oviedo, seduced in sequence, separated by choice. Then the artist’s ex-wife re-enters the scene after her attempted suicide, setting up a ménage. The film is almost more a sketch than a fully filled-in picture, a skeleton thin on flesh. (If Allen tends to hurry his ideas, it may be because he always has new ones waiting to join the queue. More than he can get to in a lifetime.) The dialogue, much of it in the writer’s laziest declarative vein — I’m this, you’re that, he or she’s the other — has not been polished anywhere near his brightest sparkle. A telling moment: the fadeout of sound in the middle of a dinner-table joke. At another time he might have felt obligated to rummage up an actual joke at that juncture. No more. And the dryasdust omniscient narrator spares him a heap of expository labor: “One evening Mark and Judy took them to the opening of a friend’s art gallery.”
The half-baked aspect has its upside. In consequence of the cut corners and rushed development, a lot happens in only ninety minutes, and Allen can lay out on a broad canvas his vision of human discontentment and self-ignorance. He can lay it out as a pattern, not as an isolated instance. The complicating appearance of Penelope Cruz as the ex-wife, shrewdly put off till just past the halfway point, is a potent pick-me-up in a flagging narrative, a powerfully physical, sensual, passionate presence that deliciously shows up the callow blankness of Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall. The latter, for her induction into Allen’s universe, appears to have pored over his oeuvre in order to “learn” the language, and she comes off sounding decidedly “studied,” more exactly sounding like Mia Farrow ca. 1982-92. (Johansson, a virtual repertory player in her third Allen film, may be rhythmically suggestible, but is solidly anchored in her very own hoarseness.) Cruz’s Spanish accent, no more than Javier Bardem’s as the sybaritic artist, but marginally more than the British accents of the recent past, guards against conscious or unconscious lapses into Allenese. Barcelona itself, although it scarcely qualifies as a “character” on a par with Vicky and Cristina, gets flattered as rhapsodically as Manhattan in Manhattan. Not in black-and-white, let’s be clear, but in melted butter.
I didn’t mind, three summers ago, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. I especially didn’t mind Blake Lively, whose fresh face I’ve hardly seen since (a supporting part in Accepted, a sophomoric college comedy), and who I gather has landed a lead role in the Gossip Girl television series. Good for her, but for me it’s as if a new acquaintance just moved to Cincinnati. That’s the end of that. The three others in the sisterhood all have, or have had, TV series of their own, which would effectively put them in Cleveland, Toledo, and Akron. America Ferrera, the one I see oftenest on the big screen, has the niftiest moves as an actress; Amber Tamblyn has the best name; Alexis Bledel has the most need of a good meal; and I still wouldn’t mind if Blake Lively were to come back from Cincinnati to star in a movie for grownups. Neither did I much mind the current sequel, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, but not minding it is a far cry from an insatiable appetite for it. The girls have gone on to separate colleges (Yale, Brown, NYU, and the Rhode Island School of Design) and on to a different director (music-video veteran Sanaa Hamri) and on to unexciting new challenges (pregnancy scare, married boyfriend, long-lost grandmother, summer-stock role in Shakespeare), and the loss of the peripatetic pants at the end cannot be regretted if it means no further updates.
Pineapple Express is a buddy comedy, a stoner comedy, a crime comedy from the House of Apatow, about a user and his dealer — best friends — on the run from the mob. As the two dopers, James Franco mimics the classic symptoms with dedication, while Seth Rogen is content to be Seth Rogen or else powerless to be otherwise. The rampant violence and gruesome mayhem are meant to be as full of merriment as, say, the puke on the computer printer or the English subtitle beneath the Asian thug, “Prepare to suck the cock of karma.” It might be interesting as a penal experiment (for you Apatow devotees, that has nothing to do with the penis) to compel anyone amused by such stuff to sit through, in succession, George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow, and, from earlier this very year, Snow Angels. Those are the complete previous credits of the director, David Gordon Green, the new poster boy for the Indie Sellout. I myself would not advocate such an experiment, feeling as I do that bad taste is its own punishment. To impose any further hardship would be sadistic. (Eyelids propped open like Malcolm McDowell’s in A Clockwork Orange.) I doubt, in any case, that those other four films, not very good in a different way, could teach any useful lessons.
James Marsh’s Man on Wire takes a novel approach to the topic of the World Trade Center, a caper documentary (to coin a genre) on the forty-five-minute funambulist stunt undertaken in 1974 by the Frenchman Philippe Petit, walking a tightwire between the Twin Towers. The events of 9/11 are never mentioned, but they’re an irrepressible subtext in the found footage of the site before and during construction, and in the cloak-and-dagger planning and execution of the covert assault on the Towers. One still photo of the wirewalker poised in midair even captures an overhead jet — at a safe clearance — in the same frame. Because so much of the film consists of present-day talking heads (interwoven with black-and-white re-enactments and authentic archive footage), there’s something a bit coy about the omission. Certainly the enormity of the later crime needn’t be introduced in mitigation of Petit’s mischief. But the disappearance of the Towers from the face of the earth would serve to underscore the singularity, the unrepeatability, of the stunt. Perhaps that goes literally without saying. And yet, if the Towers meant so much to Petit from the first moment he learned of the project (surreptitiously ripping a page out of a magazine at the dentist’s office), then it would be only natural to solicit from him something in the way of an elegy. The documentary’s function as a caper thriller, meanwhile, is on balance a success. The narrative information doesn’t always come in the best order or fullest form, and it comes with a good many interruptions and side trips, but the details of the operation will often, for one reason or another, boggle the mind. And although the undimmed history, along with the manifest survival of the talking heads, would seem to put a low ceiling on the suspense, anyone with the slightest touch of acrophobia will not, at the climax, be able to keep palms dry.