The fourth (and apparently final) film in what might be called Woody Allen’s European period, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the closest to what fans of his classic relationship comedies keep hoping the writer-director will produce again. It’s a light, entertaining and romantic movie without the strained zaniness of 2006’s Scoop, filled with mild humor, some wonderfully drawn characters and a lovely Spanish setting.
In keeping with Allen’s late-career embrace of sensuality over awkwardness, Barcelona is a visual treat from start to finish, reveling in the beauty of both its location (the titular city in Spain) and its stars. Rebecca Hall and recent Allen favorite Scarlett Johansson are the title characters, two American friends spending a summer abroad. Vicky (Hall) is working on a master’s thesis on “Catalan identity,” while Cristina (Johansson) is just hoping the change of scenery will help her find herself.
Their circumstances and states of mind are described by an omniscient male narrator in a technique that is jarring at first but soon gives the movie the tone of a particularly sharp and observant short story. The narrator, for example, encapsulates Cristina’s flightiness perfectly in his introduction of her, in which he explains that she has just spent a year writing, directing and acting in a 12-minute movie that she absolutely hates. Snide remarks like these pop up occasionally, always with measured delivery but showing a level of skepticism (though never condescension) toward some of the characters’ choices.
Staying with Vicky’s distant relatives, the two women soon meet up with suave Spanish painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who bluntly proposes bedding both of them during their first conversation. Engaged Vicky finds him off-putting initially, but Cristina immediately swoons, and soon ends up his devoted lover. Things continue at a frothy but sometimes sluggish pace, and just when the movie threatens to lose its spark, Penelope Cruz arrives to liven things up as Juan Antonio’s ex-wife Maria Elena.
Cruz is fantastic as the passionate, mentally unstable woman who always says exactly what’s on her mind, and her presence gives both Cristina and the movie itself a reason to perk up. Maria Elena insinuates herself into Juan Antonio and Cristina’s relationship, leading to the overhyped (and really rather tame) threesome that’s been dominating early press for the movie. Allen may be more open to exploring the sexiness of romance these days, but he still isn’t interested in anything prurient, and his depiction of the trio’s relationship is more about their individual intimacy issues than it is about hot girl-on-girl action.
Meanwhile, Vicky nurses a slow-burning flame for Juan Antonio while spending time with her wet-blanket fiancé, Doug, such a generic corporate tool that he works for a company called Global Enterprises and seemingly talks about nothing but golf. As a character, he’s a cipher, but that’s part of the point—Vicky is marrying an empty suit rather than pursuing the vibrant, unpredictable Juan Antonio. Hall, playing the closest thing the movie has to the traditional Allen surrogate, makes Vicky’s dilemma real and more problematic than it would appear on the surface, and Johansson, somewhat out of her depth in previous Allen outings, imbues Cristina with the right mix of infuriating and endearing.
It’s Cruz who runs away with the movie, though, and holds it together when it starts to feel insubstantial. Allen envelops his audience in sensuality, and then uses it to offer some bitter life lessons. Still, for a romance in which nobody seems to end up getting what they want, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is deceptively satisfying, and leaves you with a sense of hope, however false.