THERE WAS A TIME as late as nearly 20 years ago that the opening of a Woody Allen movie would be a national cultural event. Lots of anticipation and critical commentary, excitement to be one of the first to see it. Alas, that was then and this is now.
The arrival of Allen's latest creation for the big screen, "Vicky Christina Barcelona," was much different than, say "Crimes and Misdemeanors" in 1989, "Manhattan" in 1979, "Hannah and Her Sisters" in 1986 (my favorite) or certainly "Annie Hall" in 1977, which won four Oscars. Until practically the day that my wife and I went to see it last week, I hadn't even heard any publicity about the new movie, and I even had a hard time finding the listings about it in the paper. Turns out, it was playing at only a handful of theaters in the Washington area, those that carry the "artsier" offerings -- foreign films, documentaries and anything without Owen Wilson or Jennifer Lopez.
Also, at the theater, which was well-attended (say, 200), but not nearly full, my wife and I were probably the youngest people, except for maybe two or three others, as far as I could see. And it looked like a very upper-middle class, professional set of people. Heavily Jewish, too. (How do I know? First, I knew some of the people there, and, second... I just know.)
I don't know exactly what all that means or whether it's representative of what was going on in other showings of the film around the country. But if I had to guess I'd say that Woody Allen's appeal has boiled down to a lot of people who identified with his style of humor and musings about life and love since he was a young filmmaker. They probably have seen most of his entire oeuvre, save perhaps some of the films he seems to have dashed off in recent years and that have struggled to get critical acclaim. If what I'm seeing is what is really happening, then it also means that Woody Allen is not connecting with a new generation of film goers.
Knowing what I think I do about him, that's probably okay with him. Unlike perhaps most filmmakers, he seems to have the luxury of producing films that he believes in himself and that are not about reaching a wide audience. There's a lot to respect in that. But I sure wish that the younger film goers were seeing what he's doing.
Indeed, I sure wish more people -- of all ages and circumstances -- go to see "Vicky Christina Barcelona" because it's terrific. It's an ensemble piece that features some great players, all of whom performed brilliantly. None no more so, however, than Javier Bardem (the fantastically scary guy in "No Country for Old Men"), who, as a sensitive, attractive, seemingly dangerous and mysterious Spanish artist, drove the film with his personality and performance. And then, about midway, he tag teams with Penelope Cruz, who gave an acting lesson as his volatile ex-wife. Together they had some scenes that were among the best acted scenes you can hope to see for a while. Perhaps that's because they were given good characters and great emotional material and because Allen clearly let's them perfect their timing in rehearsal before turning on the camera for very long takes. In that sense, and this is true of many of his small films like this one, "Vicky Christina Barcelona" felt very much like a stage play, where the actors are carrying most of the energy, uninterrupted by special effects and the artifice of film editing.
The fact is, though, too many people who might like this film will probably not see it. As I say, it's a small film, more like the sort of light stage plays that used to make up much of the Broadway stage before, say, the 1970s. It doesn't plum the great mysteries of life, but it's a lot of fun and an example of how one of the great artists of our time is still, almost every year, cranking out great art.