Vicky (a neurotic and sexy Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (a neurotic and gorgeous Scarlett Johansson) are two American tourists in Spain examining their differing views on love in Woody Allen's breezy and alluring "Vicky Cristina Barcelona". Amidst a tempestuous summer in Barcelona, the ladies are both seduced by a free-thinking painter (a perfect Javier Bardem) whose own life is complicated by his still passionate relationship with his ex-wife (a devastating Penelope Cruz, who has never looked more beautiful).
Much like the change from New York City to London invigorated Allen in "Match Point", this vacation to Spain has revived some of the director's more artistic aspirations. The scenery is postcard perfect but drenched in that same dizzying lushness that made Allen's view of NYC so intoxicating in "Manhattan". The churches, the homes, the art museums, the countryside, the intimate city streets and touristy details make you feel like you are visiting Barcelona along with Allen and his cast.
There's also sharpness to the trademark Woody dialog that has been missing for quite some time. Like all of Allen films, this one is endlessly talky, but there's some great subversion when certain lines that seem like throw-aways actually pack a punch when given a second thought. When Bardem first attempts to talk Johansson's character into bed, he says something clichéd about her being hard to please. Quick witted, Johansson replies, "I'm famous for my intolerance." She says it casually, but it packs a bite as it's the complete antithesis of her character's outward desire to be someone who rallies against cultural norms, and she presents herself as someone who is easy-going and tolerant of all.
Allen also displays a keen sense of pacing when he creates tension in his build up to Cruz's appearance after her character is endlessly talked about but never seen until about half way through the film. When Cruz finally arrives, her moody whirling dervish of a performance is the perfect spice to liven up the soupy proceedings. Her seething, fiery line readings combined with looks that could kill make her the front-runner for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars.
The baseline archetypal characters are essentially clichéd, but the way in which Allen handles all of their interpersonal relationships is fairly sophisticated and entertaining even when it grows absurd. There is of course that kiss between Scarlett and Penelope but also some moments of Lynchian-lite when Allen photographs the brunette Hall and blonde Johansson similarly to make them seem like they are two sides of the same woman. There's even more weirdness when die-hard Woody fans realize that in some perverse way Scarlett Johansson's character is the "Woody" part--as in any film he does not star, there is always one character who represents the part he would've played had he been in it. However, film buffs will enjoy some of the nice touches like when Hall and another go to see Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" (one of my all time favorite films) or the repetitive use of a Spanish guitar in the soundtrack whenever Bardem and Hall get together. But then there's the mostly unnecessary voice-over narration that fills in expository gaps and shows Allen can still be a lazy tactician.
Woody Allen has always been an acquired taste, even more so in his latter years when he sometimes forgets how to provoke, but his fans should be delighted with this latest European flavored effort. In the end, you'll feel like Javier Bardem is the luckiest man in the world, Penelope Cruz is operating at the echelon of her appeal, and Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, well, they'll always have Barcelona.