Woody Allen's movies are unfailingly interesting. Even when he's not firing on all cylinders, as with the bizarre 1996 musical Everyone Says I Love You or 2003's decent Anything Else, his work is just inherently interesting. There's always a rhythm and a flow to his movies, and an underlying energy that keeps most of them afloat even in their most perilous moments. When Allen makes a genuinely superb movie, such as Match Point — certainly his best this decade — it's thrilling. But all I ask of an Allen film is for it to be interesting, and with that in mind, Vicky Cristina Barcelona fits the bill.
The fact that the entire cast is ridiculously photogenic doesn't hurt. Allen has always had a thing for beautiful women, and his 21st-century muse Scarlett Johansson is perhaps the most beautiful. She stars as one half of the titular traveling duo, Cristina, who is described in the (at times cumbersome) narration as believing in the opposite romantic ideals as Vicky; she accepts that pain is a part of love, and that it might even help fuel the lust, casting her character in a tragically hip light. Cristina wrote, directed, edited, and acted in a 12-minute short film which she subsequently hated, and has spent her time since dabbling in photography. She longs to write poetry, but can't, and at one point describes herself as a talentless person who unfortunately has much to express.
Rebecca Hall is attractive in a more naturalistic and down-to-earth fashion, warm and inviting where Johansson is formidable. This works well to contrast Johansson's Cristina with Hall's Vicky, who believes in absolute loyalty and commitment, constantly criticizing Cristina for her frisky flings. Vicky, who is studying Catalan identity yet doesn't seem to have figured out a purpose for such study, invites Cristina to Barcelona, where they will stay at her Aunt Judy's (Patricia Clarkson) house for the summer. They spend their days scoping out the sights and taking in simmering Spanish-guitar playing. One night after attending an art exhibit where Cristina can't stop eyeing one of the dashing painters, they head to a restaurant where that same painter just happens to be dining. His name is Juan Antonio, and he is played by Javier Bardem, certainly one of the best-looking actors working today. He's done away with the creepy stare he employed in the riveting No Country for Old Men, not to mention that infamous Prince Valiant haircut, and he's in full-on sex mode here.
Juan Antonio sidles over to Vicky and Cristina's table, and asks them to take a plane to Oviedo for the weekend, where he can entertain them and make love with them. The outrageously offended Vicky asks, "Excuse me, who exactly is going to be making love?" "Hopefully, the three of us," is his reply. Vicky, engaged to a nice guy back in New York City, declines, but of course Cristina melts in Juan Antonio's hands, and that's where the adventure begins. Unexpected people end up with unexpected people, and plenty of lies and half-truths abound. The movie isn't quite a comedy, at least not by Allen's usual guidelines (the material is far from Annie Hall or Broadway Danny Rose), nor is it a tense drama like Match Point. Instead, it's something in between, a film which is quietly funny and quietly mesmerizing, always lighting a fire underneath its boiling-point relationship triangles just when it's becoming too staid.
And it does become staid on occasion. Allen is again exploring wealthy and eccentric characters, and there's only so much discussion of wine and golfing and Serious Artistic Inspiration one can take before it begins to veer into self-parody. The actors make it as vibrant as possible, especially Bardem; the man doesn't know how to do dull. Though Woody himself isn't in the movie this time, he inevitably has a Woody stand-in, and though this one's more subtle than most, it's Vicky, Rebecca Hall getting to try out Allen's trademark verbal neuroses. She can't do it better than Woody, of course, but except for a couple of overwritten passages, she handles it fine. Scarlett Johansson, whose acting ability for some reason has come under fire lately (must be a byproduct of such lavish beauty), also once more proves herself a capable actress.
But the real highlight of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, more than the three main actors or Javier Aguirresarobe's beautifully lit cinematography, is another pretty face; that of Penélope Cruz, in an Oscar-nominated performance. Cruz, who has never gotten to showcase much of her range in other American films, is absolutely wonderful here as Juan Antonio's somewhat crazed ex-love Maria Elena. She re-energizes the picture in its last third, and she and Bardem share some of the most intense non-physical quarrels in recent memory. Tension drips off the walls, and Allen never overuses her nor does he underutilize her. Her entire character, from scripting to casting, is a masterstroke.
This is a romantic yet ultimately grim film, because as usual with Allen, there are no simple answers and no trite Hollywood endings. What Vicky and Cristina discover about themselves and their sexual identities, romantic capabilities, once-structured environments, etc., isn't what they had hoped for at the beginning of an optimistic summer. Allen plays a bad joke on them, but it's a good one for the audience, just the sexy and amusing distraction the characters had been looking for.