Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina
(current Allen muse Scarlett Johansson) are American gal pals on
holiday in Barcelona, whereupon they meet amorous painter Juan Antonio (No Country for Old Men’s
Javier Bardem), who quickly offers an indecent proposal—how’s about a
weekend threesome at my place in Oviedo—although, rest assured, it
sounds far more enticing from the artist’s lips. Strait-laced Vicky,
soon to marry her boring fiance Doug (Chris Messina), is shocked, while
the randier Cristina is ready to go. Romantic problems inevitably ensue
that place the best friends in unlikely situations. Then add more salsa
with the extra ingredient of Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), a
photographer who is also Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, and you’ve got the
whole enchilada for Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Allen doesn’t act in this film although
his presence is everywhere, from the cadences of Rebecca Hall’s
performance (at least her character’s neuroticism is far more dialed
down than Kenneth Branagh’s riff on Allen in 1998 Celebrity),
to the deadpan drollery provided by Christopher Evan Welch’s off-screen
narrator, who comments on persnickety details while filling in the
narrative gaps between sequences. The 73-year-old auteur’s theme of
passion-equals-craziness is also evident on his resume; squint during Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s roundelays and you might also see A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Allen’s 1982 ode to Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night.
Still, Allen makes sure that the Juan
Antonio and Maria Elena characters are not hot-blooded stereotypes.
Bardem emphatically does not come across as Pepe LePew on Spanish fly,
nor does Cruz emulate the Latin-firebrand vibes of 1930s star Lupe
Valez. Following on her Volver triumph, Cruz again channels the
earthy spirit of Sophia Loren’s earlier pictures to embellish Maria
Elena. Now Academy Award-nominated for her Vicky Cristina Barcelona turn, Cruz goes a long way toward rehabbing her work in clunkers like Vanilla Sky.
Much like Bardem’s casual rogue, viewers
will also be seduced by the sun-kissed travelogue images provided by
director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe, while a lilting
soundtrack—with atmospheric contributions from musicians Juan Quesada,
Juan Serrano and Paco de Lucia—ably flavors the film as much as the
Gershwin tunes did for Allen’s Manhattan. What’s missing, alas,
are truly laugh-out-loud bits, once an Allen hallmark but now in short
supply amid his 21st-century output. Still, he’s able to stage a gag
that can seemingly come out of nowhere; Doug’s dialogue line to Vicky,
“I still don’t understand why your language teacher had a gun,” won’t
seem like much on the printed page, but it’s one of the funniest
moments in this appealing, well-acted trifle.
Now out on home video, timed to
capitalize on Cruz’s Oscar bid, Genius Products’ extras-challenged DVD
was not available to peruse at press time, although it is letterboxed
at a 1.85:1 ratio.
Cruz control: Penelope Cruz earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her work in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.