Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Critics hail Cruz as Allen returns to form

MGM/The Weinstein Co.

Release date: Aug. 15

Woody Allen is no stranger to Oscar. He’s notched 14 writing noms (and two wins), six directing noms (and one win) and a picture win with 1977’s “Annie Hall.” Allen also has a habit of directing his actors to Oscar noms and wins. With “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” which many Allen watchers have hailed as a solid return to form, the filmmaker may have another shot at a writing, and even a directing, kudo. Pic’s gorgeous cast delivers sharp perfs that could catch the eye of voters. The film certainly goosed the mood at the Cannes festival this year and has picked up $22 million at the domestic B.O.

Constructed like a New Yorker short story, pic follows protags Vicky (British thesp Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and their various encounters with sexy Spanish artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and his ex, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), in the titular city.

The screenplay serves up well-worn characters — the confused free spirit yearning to be an artist, the wannabe suburban matron, the Latin lothario — but Allen’s trademark wit and musings on life choices, art, love and sex give it a leg up. Like a good short story, it’s easily palatable, but upon deeper inspection deftly touches on some universal truths.

Cruz, who was nominated for the actress Oscar in 2007 (“Volver”), has earned the most critical recognition for her hilarious, sexy, obsessive and crazy Maria Elena. Although she doesn’t show up until close to halfway through the film, her character’s gravitas, beauty and genius is legendary by the time she appears — and Cruz does not disappoint, delivering a woman whose passion for love and art constantly undermines her. Hall also earned critical notice as Vicky, whose life unfurls ahead of her like an Excel spreadsheet. She discovers her inner free spirit but ultimately stifles such deviation from her preordained path to upper-class suburbia. (Hall has turned heads in “Frost/Nixon” as well this year.)

Sensuously lensed by Javier Aguirresarobe, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is in the tradition of comedies that dig deeper, but only if the aud is looking. It’s rare that such pics become Oscar bait, but with Allen and marketing courtesy of the Weinstein Co. behind it, it’s possible.

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