Woody Allen’s route to Spain for his latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, was by way of England, where he made his last three films after spending nearly a lifetime on the even smaller island of Manhattan. Travel seems to be good for the aging writer (and, secondly, director), who has, famously, released a film nearly every year since 1966’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily?
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is more in line with Allen’s existentialist explorations of relationships, such as Hannah and Her Sisters, than with his more plot-mechanics-driven, Dostoyevskian dissections of human nature, such as Crimes and Misdemeanors or Match Point. It is also one of his best and funniest films in years. Taking, perhaps, a tapas-sized bite from Pedro Almódovar (borrowing his cinematographer, one of his favorite actresses, Penélope Cruz, and a dash of his sex-imbroglio positivity) leaves a nice bit of flavor on the breath that carries Allen’s voice.
Still, Allen manages to bring a couple of neurotic (has a review of an Allen film ever gone without the inclusion of the word “neurotic”?), white, upper-class New Yorkers along for the ride. This titular pair (lame pun, but unfortunately very much intended in this case) are Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson). Vicky is a stunning but stiff student of “Catalonian identity,” though she speaks neither Catalonian nor even Spanish for that matter. Cristina is a buxom pseudo-artist who has just recently completed a 12-minute film about “why love is so hard to define.”
Sojourning in Spain for the summer, the two quickly meet painter Juan Antonio, played by Javier Bardem, who, with his fifth-Beatle-’do from No Country for Old Men shorn away, looks quite convincing as the Don Juan artist. Antonio shakes the little red cape that is his offer of sex at the touristas. The pair unknowingly rushes headfirst into the sword— Antonio’s tempestuous ex-wife (an amazing Penélope Cruz).
The characters begin as archetypes: the Lothario Latin lover/painter/poet; the insecure, ingénue, pseudo-artist ditz; the frigid, dispassionate semi-intellectual; the tempestuous, hot-blooded Spanish sex-bomb. But Allen soon develops them in interesting ways, revealing levels of nuanced humanity while simultaneously retaining those simple, over-bold lines for their comedic possibilities.
But what matters ultimately is not so much the outlines of the characters’ habits but, rather, the universe they inhabit. This universe is expounded by Antonio in the form of his pick-up line for the traveling Americans: “Life is short. Life is dull. Life is full of pain.” Allen would have only added “but it’s the only place where you can get Chinese food.”
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Written and directed by Woody Allen
With Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz and Patricia Clarkson
96 min., PG-13