Rebecca Hall = B+
I was pleasantly surprised by Hall in this performance, when I had expected a dull and lifeless performance, aka Johansson. However, Hall proved herself to be much more adept than her blonde co-star at making Woody Allen's dialogue spark with both flair and a naturalistic delivery. However, she is struck with a slightly unbelievable plot twist but she even manages to make that come off as believable for her character. Ultimately, this is a performance that is an achievement and bodes well for the rest of her career. For somebody who is such a novice to the screen, she adapts herself well to the role of the lead lady and shines with movie star-esque charisma. (She was also alarmingly underused in Frost/Nixon this year.)
Javier Bardem = B/B+
In a total turnabout from his Oscar-winning turn, but not so much from his previous Spanish roles, Bardem makes his character believable. He's not asked to do much else, but with a character as ridiculous and ludicrous as Juan Antonio, that's a big ask. Even so, Bardem graces his scenes with a kind of serenity and sexuality that is alarmingly alluring and plays very well off Hall and the superlative Cruz. The only time he seems dull is when he is with Scarlett Johansson; not even he can sell that this man would be attracted to this wash of a woman and it seems like an awkward way of Allen writing his current muse into a glamorous part. However, for the most part Bardem is a gift to the film that adds a much needed male presence that many Allen films lack due to his own participation in them.
Scarlett Johansson = C-
Out of all of Allen's muses, Johansson isn't necessarily the least talented, even though she probably is, but she's definitely the one who has flourished the least under his direction. Prior to her movies with him, she was reviewed very well in Lost in Translation and Girl With A Pearl Earring, but while her career has blossomed and bloomed, her talent has only decreased. Interestingly, while her talent has decreased, Cruz's has increased. Just a thought. His next film makes it seem as though he's kissed goodbye to Johansson and moved onto a muse who has shown her talent in a few projects; Evan Rachel Wood of thirteen, Across the Universe and The Wrestler fame. Let's hope he's hit gold again with this one. If you're wondering why I'm not talking about her actual performance here, it's because there's nothing here. She's bland and lifeless here. She's not even appealing on the basest physical level. She says the lines and goes through the motions and that's it. It's not detrimental to the film in particular for some reason, but there's no way I can endorse this performance in any way.
Penelope Cruz = A+
Penelope Cruz, one of my favourite actresses of recent year. Granted, I liked her even before Volver but it was the film that gave me a good reason to legitimately liked her. In a move that nobody expected, she actually improved as an actress since then, with this performance and a dramatic performance in Elegy. Even more amazingly, she crosses the language barrier with little difficulty now which seemed to be her largest hurdle, (Sahara, Vanilla Sky, Gothika), to give a great performance here. And if her next films are anything to go by, another Almodovar film and the Academy Award winner and nominee studded Nine, she's becoming more discerning with her projects.
However, she is a jewel in a film that I already like a lot. She enters the film just as it's beginning to lag and gives it a much needed energy that Allen's flims have lacked since Mira Sorvino won her Oscar. There's just so much to love in her performance here, her constant defiance to speak English, some of her perfect line-readings and the sheer crazy physicality of the role. It's one that is almost played to the rafters, but always in the service of the character; Maria Elena is the kind of character who does this just because that's how she is, not because she thinks anybody is watching. However, she also knows when to downplay the role, like at the table scene, with her hand rubbing against her face in sheer intolerance for Cristina and everything she embodies. It takes a good actress to keep the fires burning at full tilt throughout a performance, it takes a truly gifted and talented actress like Cruz to know when to dull them down in a way that it is service to the performance, character and movie. Absolutely amazing work from an actress that will only continue to improve over time.
Overall Film Grade: B/B+