“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a sexy, funny divertissement that passes as enjoyably as an idle summer’s afternoon in the titular Spanish city. With Javier Bardem starring as a bohemian artist involved variously with Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz and Rebecca Hall, pic offers potent romantic fantasy elements for men and women and a cast that should produce the best commercial returns for a Woody Allen film since “Match Point.” And, in the bargain, if Barcelona wants even more visitors than it already attracts, this film will supply them.
Just as London did when Allen went there for “Match Point,” the Catalan capital serves as an evident stimulus for the director. Even if the film provides a strictly tourist’s view of the city (a perspective justified by the scenario, in fact), and one just as upscale and heedless of money as ever for Allen, “VCB” is by several degrees more hot-blooded than his usual norm, thanks especially due to the palpable chemistry of Bardem and Cruz in the second half.
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The film is all about sexual attraction and what to do about it (and in what combinations). Initial proposition along these lines comes soon after best buds Vicky (Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) arrive to spend the summer at the sumptuous hillside Barcelona home of Vicky’s older friends Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and Doug Nash (Kevin Dunn); after spotting Juan Antonio (Bardem) at an art gallery, the two all-American beauties are approached by the confident bearded painter in a swank restaurant with the disarmingly blunt offer of joining him in a small town for a weekend of art, food and sex.
Vicky, who’s engaged to nice guy New Yorker Doug (Chris Messina) and is vaguely neurotic in longstanding Allen-female fashion, says nay, but when Cristina, who’s looking for adventure, says yeah, the trio flies off by private plane to picturesque Oviedo. In different ways, Juan Antonio insinuates himself into both women’s lives in the coming days, admitting in passing his abiding love for his ex-wife Maria Elena (Cruz), who once stabbed him in a fury and now lives with a man in Madrid.
Not only because she’s available and Vicky’s not, Cristina seems a better match for the charming seducer, and she eventually moves in with him while Vicky begins to wonder if she’s facing a boring life with Doug, who springs a surprise proposal to come marry her in Barcelona. Cue Maria Elena’s dramatic entrance, which throws a monkeywrench into everyone’s lives and spectacularly revs the picture’s body temperature up from warm to hot.
Cruz, who officially graduated from sex kitten to powerhouse melodramatic actress in “Volver,” is in full Anna Magnani mode here, storming up and down mountain peaks of emotion and captivating everyone in the process. Allen even generates affectionate comic mileage from the common rap on Cruz’s acting–that she’s great in Spanish but blah in English–by having her deliver Maria Elena’s colorful tirades in her native language, only to be told again and again by Juan Antonio to speak English so Cristina can understand her. She’s dynamite here in either language.
The sexual permutations eventually multiply with the man and two women under the same roof, especially in a provocative red-light-drenched photo dark room encounter between the two women. But Vicky unexpectedly re-enters the picture as well in a very nicely constructed romantic farce that boasts a boisterously amusing climax.
Looking macho but speaking mostly in a tender, sincere way to his women, Bardem is a thoroughly convincing and likable ladies’ man. Johansson needs mostly to be open and malleable, reacting to Cristina’s life opportunities, and thesp’s slower pace serves as a nice contrast to the others. Hall, whom American theater audiences saw on tour in her father Peter Hall’s production of “As You Like It,” registers engagingly and betrays no Englishness as a woman who suddenly doubts what she thought were life’s certainties.
The locations include a laundry list of celebrated spots in the city and environs (Gaudi creations, the Miro Museum, the old amusement park, et al.), all of which shimmer with summer luster through the lens of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (“Talk to Her,” “The Others”). A soundtrack of local music adds to the vibrating sexiness.
Pic’s one significant problem is the narration, frequently employed to fill in background and connect the narrative dots. It would be interesting to see if the film could play without the commentary altogether. But if it’s deemed necessary, the bland, tonally off-putting male voice could profitably be replaced, possibly by Clarkson, who plays the one character plausibly in a position to know all the information imparted in the voiceover.