There’s been a fair amount of talk in recent times about the cruelty of contemporary comedy – that there’s a sense of sneering and reveling at and in the misfortune and weaknesses of others. That may or may not be the case – but what it highlights is just how difficult it can be to write in any way about people without being high and mighty.
Woody Allen is a case in point – when he’s good, he achieves the rare height of satire and compassion at the same time. When he’s not so good….Well, if you seen any Woody Allen film recently (especially one set in the UK), then you’ll know it’s painful for all concerned.
So it’s great to see that his latest – Vicky Cristina Barcelona – is far better for everybody, not least the viewer. That this is the case is no small achievement. It basically showcases the story of a set of thoroughly selfish and self-absorbed characters. Two American girls abroad in Barcelona for a summer, intertwining with a tortured artist and his dangerously unhinged wife. There are various permutations of sexual encounters (not forgetting a crucial bout of food poisoning), and everyone’s out for themselves in the long run.
So why does this work, and why do I end up actually enjoying spending time with these people? Many reasons – for a start there’s the obvious things, like the performances and the script. There’s not a weak link in the front-line performances, and the script is engagingly warm and witty. There’s the narration – which strikes just the right note of sardonic wit…..at times you can hear between the narrator’s lines ‘….and then they went and did this….can you believe such people exist??’ It’s not that narrator sits in judgement on them, it’s more that this is how people are – especially, Woody seems to be saying, Americans abroad. They are all too believably cliched in their attitudes to Europeans and their life; one of them the whimsical romantic, the other having written a thesis on Catalan culture, seemingly without going there until it’s finished.
So this works, brilliantly. I’d rather have had Woody Allen as the narrator – he’d have suited it perfectly. That, though, may be the signal that he’s learnt the lessons of his previous disasters – it’s not so much about him trying to prove something, or break out or make a point. No – he’s just doing what he does best, showing us people in all their neuroses and foibles. In doing so, he tells us more about the humility he may finally be achieving, taking the log out of his own eye first. It means we’re totally absorbed by a group of selfish people doing very selfish things.
How absorbed? When I saw the trailer, I was surprised it finished by showing us a key plot point that was obviously meant to be a surprise. Well that’s it, I thought. They’ve spoilt the big moment. When it came in the cinema, it was a total shock – I’d completely forgotten. He’s back.