'Vicky Cristina Barcelona'


If Woody Allen's geographical shift from Manhattan to London caused some to see a more serious and philosophical side to him, his progression to Barcelona for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" might, for others, represent a welcome return to the neurotic, impetuous romances of his "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" and even his "Husbands and Wives" periods.

Not that "Vicky" is in the category of those Allen classics. But he is not taking himself too seriously here and he is not imposing a story on a foreign city with scant regard for its culture. Boxoffice results should follow the usual pattern with Allen's more successful comedies.

Barcelona and Spanish culture is integral to the storytelling in "Vicky." Which is not to say Allen isn't functioning as a well-informed tourist. The two most hilarious characters, played by Spain's two most famous actors, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, are nothing if not cliches about tempestuous Latin lovers. But, boy, does Allen have fun with those cliches.

Two young American women friends — no innocents abroad these — fall into a heady whirlwind of romance, lust and partner variations during a sultry summer in the Catalonian capital. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is the sensible and structured one, already engaged to an equally sensible businessman. Cristina (Allen's current muse, Scarlett Johansson) is fleeing yet another doomed romance in her perpetual search for a happiness she can't define.

Each falls under the romantic sway of "intense" painter Juan Antonio (Bardem). At first glance the epitome of "Eurotrash," it is to Allen's credit that, during the course of the movie, he deepens this character, giving Juan Antonio a dignity and integrity absent in his initial well-oiled moves on the young women.

Juan Antonio and Cristina appear made for each other, but a surprising and unplanned encounter between Juan Antonio and Vicky devastates her life trajectory. Suddenly, all that sense and structure tumbles into a puddle of liquid desire.

Juan Antonio and Cristina do settle into a live-in relationship, but this romance stumbles when his mercurial ex-wife, Maria Elena (Cruz), re-enters his life following a failed suicide attempt.

But strange is the magic that happens next: The couple that could never work as a duo suddenly blossoms as a menage-a-trois!

Allen's love for Barcelona shines in every immaculate image, stunning vista, tender glance down an expansive boulevard or tiny street, reverential gaze at buildings by Gaudi and quick dives into picturesque taverns. Allen imagines a Bohemian subculture of artists and poets, like Paris after World War I or Greenwich Village after World War II, wherein its denizens drink wine and make love into the intoxicating night.

Does Allen in his advancing years see in Barcelona a chance to re-create his Manhattan of old, a city not of Gershwin but of Spanish melodies and guitar music, where again young neurotics can experiment with lifestyles and embrace art?

Whatever, the film belongs to Bardem and Cruz. This is a Spanish version of "Private Lives," a couple that can't live apart or together, whose love will always burst into fiery combat. Their scenes are some of the funniest Allen has ever put on film, and the culmination of this love/hate tango is not to be missed.(partialdiff)