Just when one had given up hoping for another worthwhile Woody Allen movie, the angst-ridden auteur proves us wrong with a genuine return to form.
After a string of underwhelming offerings, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, while falling short of his best work, shows there is plenty of life in the old dog yet. A delightfully witty take on the vagaries of romantic love set in Barcelona, this bitter-sweet comedy-drama is polished entertainment from a master filmmaker.
A narrator (voiced by Christopher Evan Welch) sets the scene for a beguiling story about two contrasting young American women whose lives are changed by their summer sojourn in Barcelona. The self-assured Vicky (Rebecca Hall), pursuing a Masters in Catalan Studies and engaged to be married, seems to have her life well-organized, while her unstable friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), an in-and-out of work actress, finds it difficult to make any commitment to either career or relationships.
While staying with relatives of Vicky, the pair become romantically involved with local lothario artist Juan (Javier Bardem) after meeting him at an exhibition of his paintings. But their already competing attentions are further complicated by the arrival of Juans fiery ex-wife painter Maria Elena (Penlope Cruz) and Vickys fianc Doug (Chris Messina), a decent but dull New York corporate executive, who unexpectedly arranges for them to have a civil wedding in Barcelona.
As a movie about beautiful people in a beautiful city, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is certainly easy on the eye, with Javier Aguirresarobes golden-hued cinematography fully exploiting the picturesque qualities of the Catlan capital, Gaudi and Miro included. Arguably the travelogue aspects can be justified by the fact that the American women are sightseeing, but the film is in danger of becoming a bland tourist advertisement, with the narration seeming a rather lazy way of providing information, until the central relationships get going.
Allen has drawn a thoughtfully amusing portrait of young Americans losing their inhibitions in Europe, in not so much a clash as a mingling of cultures. The focus is very much on how the two women react differently to what happens, as their ideas of conventional morality are challenged by their free-living Spanish counterparts: travel certainly broadens their horizons in this Latin sentimental education. In what is undoubtedly Allens sexiest film ever, the soft sensuality is muddied by a characteristically melancholic undercurrent without losing its lightness of touch.
British actress Hall (daughter of venerable theatre director Sir Peter) gives an excellent performance as Vicky, reassessing her life she thought was already planned, as impulse overcomes reason and her certainties melt in the Spanish sun. Johansson is less convincing as Cristina, never really conveying the restlessness of a woman who will always be looking for something else to fulfil her vague longings.
Bardem so different from his Oscar-winning role as the creepy hitman in No Country for Old Men is charmingly bohemian as Juan, soon transcending the stereotype of Latin lover, with the sparks really flying between him and Cruzs deliciously unbalanced, gun-toting Maria Elena, a scene-stealing performance full of dark passion.
After making a terrible trio of movies in London, where he felt like a fish out of water, Allen seems more at home in Barcelona though Catalonians may disagree! But the big difference is probably the fact that, whereas those recent films were melodramas revolving around murder, Vicky Cristina Barcelona reverts to classic Allen territory of tragi-comic sexual relationships, where pathos lurks behind the laughs. Lets hope that, like his two female protagonists, he has learned from his Continental experiences on returning to New York to make his new, already completed, film Whatever Works.