Despite using the worst title of his career, Woody Allen has created a very smart, sexy comedy in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. He has also single-handedly restored Javier Bardem’s sex appeal after the Coen Brothers obliterated it with his Dorothy Hamill “short n’ sassy” hairdo in No Country For Old Men.
Basically, the film is about Americans Vicky (British Rebecca Hall, daughter of esteemed director Peter Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) who spend the summer in, you guessed it, Barcelona. They stay with expatriates Judy and Mark Nash (the sublime Patricia Clarkson and all-purpose schlub Kevin Dunn), who take them to an art gallery where Cristina falls for tortured artist José Antonio (Bardem). Later, he spies the girls in a restaurant and invites them to fly away with him (and make love with him, he proposes). Vicky is aghast, but Cristina instantly says yes, so off they go to the beautiful town of Oviedo.
Allen does a nice job of setting up our expectations that José Antonio is a pig and that Vicky is a prig, only to knock them down. José Antonio is deeper than he seems, having been deeply wounded, literally and figuratively, by his fiery ex-wife Maria Elena, played by Bardem’s ladylove Penélope Cruz. Of course, she must reappear, and boy, does she! Just as Cristina and José Antonio are setting up house, Maria Elena attempts suicide and must come live with them. Faster than you can say “Summer lovin’, had me a blast,” the three have formed an unconventional relationship that’s very European. Vicky, meanwhile, is struggling with her unresolved feelings for José Antonio, having fallen under his spell herself.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona features an intrusive narrator, who I came to appreciate, giving the film the feeling of a novel come to life. Woody Allen’s comic touch is on full display, even though he’s not, but what’s surprising is how unabashedly sexy the film is. Bardem is an effortlessly smoldering stud, and Cruz again proves that she really can act when not stuck in dreck like Gothika and Vanilla Sky. Johansson and Hall are both beautiful and give witty and rich performances as the two very different tourists, but they serve as the audience’s stand-ins, experiencing the magic of Barcelona as we wish we could. If you’re looking for a more mature date movie, I recommend you meet Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
UPDATE: Vicky Cristina Barcelona is now available on DVD and Blu-rayfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.