Vicky Cristina Barcelona is like a meld of two of my favorite things: Woody Allen and Pedro Almodóvar. You've got those sublime Spanish settings captured by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Talk to Her), a vivacious Penélope Cruz and suave Javier Bardem, as well as an ode to passions and the ever confounding ways of the heart. Well that's probably where the similarities end and the neuroses begin. Like London did for Match Point, it's obvious that this change of pace brought with it an invigoration for Allen, not unlike the lustful spark and curiosity that drives his characters.
There's a vibrancy and a spirit here that speaks to the brilliance of the Barcelona setting, matched with Allen's own witty mix of pessimism and romanticism. Vicky and Cristina are supposedly opposite sides of the coin when it comes to their desires and still they find a shared affection for Juan Antonio, a local artist. Vicky is one to justify or discredit her emotions based on logic and obligations, while Cristina fancies herself a "European spirit," open to the world's possibilities. When Juan Antonio gives an impulsive suggestion that the two women share a plane to Oviedo, as well as his bed, it quickly establishes his blunt and freeing passion for life. If any man could seduce Vicky from her shell, it's Juan Antonio. The invitation is accepted, albeit skeptically, and it opens up a new realm of possibilities for Vicky, whose impending marriage is soon pulled into question over a night of wine and Catalan guitars. In typical Allen fashion the romantic lives intermingle and double-cross, and while love may ultimately run its course, it might just be worth the short trip.
What struck me the most upon leaving the theater was a feeling of refreshment. It's enough to spend time in gorgeous sunlit locales set to Spanish serenades, but it's rare at this point in the year to see great actors having free reign with intelligent material. The only easy criticism is Allen's choice to have the summer-long journey guided by an omniscient narrator, presumably to compact the entire summer's events. Although frustrating at first, it ultimately finds a balance and lends itself to the film's tight pacing, thus it's a minor quibble. The many joys here come from Allen's adept pondering funneled through his marvelous cast. The humor is so light on its feet, and unlike his more recent efforts of Anything Else or Scoop, the dialogue here doesn't seem as forced into the mouths of its generation. It all feels current and still in the vein of the adult-themed comedies that gave Allen his greatest success in the seventies.
There's been some criticism directed toward the "male fantasy" aspect of the film, regarding the fact that three beautiful women swarm to a single man and question their very cores just to be with him. I think it's unfair, however, to divide the film between men and women, as each of the characters are finding themselves fixated on brief glimmers of love and finding their own discontent. Even the seductive force that is Juan Antonio can barely be flirtatious with Vicky or Cristina without a few longing references to his ex-lover Maria Elena. Instead of challenging his affections for Maria Elena by giving himself completely to Cristina, he invites Maria Elena into their relationship. It's clear that Allen and his characters are cynical towards the happily ever after, but it's the desire for those incendiary moments that keep them going.
Javier Bardem needs to do little beyond being Javier Bardem, so his power of temptations are top notch here. Rebecca Hall plays Vicky as the unsure voice of reason and takes in each moment of self-doubt and introspection. Her plight's sympathetic, if a bit calculated by her by-the-books bland fiancé. She's closest to the prescribed "Woody Allen role" and a great discovery. Scarlett Johansson continues to improve as an actress, creating in Cristina a sensual bit of possibility. Her character is defined by her lack of definition, so Johansson creates an open vessel -- a woman who's still searching. The contrast to these two is Penélope Cruz as Maria Elena. After much discussion of this crazed women, her introduced at the film's half-way point is exactly when the film ignites. Showing breathtaking skills like those in last year's Volver, Cruz is a life-force here. She catches every flashing glimpse of Maria Elena's vulnerability alongside each sharp dramatic gesture, continually stealing moments and the film's most sincere laughs. It's a complete delight to watch her as she continues to evolve into one of the finest actresses in films today. Even the great Patricia Clarkson is on the sidelines, so the performances could hardly be a letdown.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona ranks alongside Allen's finer entries, particularly of the last few years, because the insights ring true and it's so tinged with artistic inspiration. Here the outcome is secondary to the journey, or perhaps they're one and the same. Rarely in American cinema do we get characters in romantic comedies that are so soured by doubt and yet so willing to take the plunge.