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By Andrew Jack

NEW YORK, 20 FEBRUARY 2009 - Pluck a venerable film director out of his native habitat, cull his superficial first impressions of a new place, simmer in some of his long-standing fantasies, fold in his latest muse, season extremely lightly with a poorly constructed plot, and leave exposed to the southern European sun. Result? Another half-baked Woody Allen film.

Otherwise known as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen's newest offering was praised by many critics as a return to form after a series of misses. It may have been an improvement, but if so, only because he had fallen so far in previous recent efforts like the dreadful Match Point .

One advantage of taking trans-atlantic flights (except those operated by ever more decrepit U.S.-based airlines with a single pull-down distant screen) is that you have a reasonable choice of films, allowing you to catch up on releases that you probably would not have paid to see at a cinema but help pass the time pleasantly enough.

I should be grateful that having Woody Allen's latest film on the playlist - one that I would have paid to see - saved me the money. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is another vehicle for Allen's latest preferred actress Scarlet Johansson, whose pretty face is counterbalanced by an emotional range even narrower than Hugh Grant's.

It loosely speaks to an adolescent's fantasy of wanderlust meets ménage á trois with a splash of lesbianism, without any of the subtlety or freshness that someone of Allen's maturity and observational skills of relationships might have been expected to bring to such themes.

The giveaway came in a short interview with Allen in the in-flight magazine, which I read ahead of watching. He enthused about Spain, a country he admitted that he had scarcely known but had fallen in love with. He cited the pleasures of Gaudi, Miro, and food.

Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Photo:Victor Bello, courtesy of The Weinstein Company

That all showed in the film, which lingered lovingly on shots of Gaudi, Miro and food. Add in the assorted shots of guitar sessions by candlelight (which he did), and it could have passed for a promo made for the Spanish tourist office. It failed to delve beneath superficial first impressions. Taken out of his native Manhattan, Allen seems incapable of finding an alternative voice.

Not only has he removed himself as an actor from his films, but even his wry narrator's voice of previous projects was gone, substituted for a poor alternative voiceover that added nothing to the movie. His director's touch also seemed missing, with Penelope Cruz behaving like a two-year-old at an improvisation session in her mock angry scenes as the estranged wife of the Spanish artist at the centre of the seductions of the film.

His actors, conveniently for Anglophone viewers, were mostly either American or spoke English. Everyone lived in vast villas, and despite the stresses and titillations of bedroom swapping, in other respects had blessed lives: rich relatives, boats, successful careers, and in Johansson's case an implausibly easy shift towards becoming a great photographer although she could not even hold her camera still or close to her eye for more than two seconds.

There were flashes of humour, but most seemed tired. The scene in which Vicky, the uptight one with longer lingering attraction to her artist counterpoint, nervously changes her outfit half a dozen times ahead of an assignation, has been done as many times before and better, even on a Russian pop video I once saw.

Intriguingly, in his magazine interview, Allen said his films now got a better reception in Europe than the U.S. For a film about Spain or Britain, I would turn to natives of either country for much more insightful output. In his own homeland, I found my next choice film on the plane - the Coen brothers' Burn After Reading - triggered more laughs, offered greater originality and depth, and demonstrated more impressive acting in the first five minutes than was mustered in Allen's entire creation, which left a bad taste in the mouth.

Richard Jenkins, Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand in Burn After Reading (2008)
Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Title Photo: Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Photo:Victor Bello, courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Andrew Jack is a senior journalist at the Financial Times and the author of Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform Without Democracy? (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004, 2007). He is also a member of the editorial board of and last wrote on the British Museum's exhibition Hadrian: Empire and Conflict.

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