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Imagine a summer of love and romance in Barcelona. There would be late nights filled with good wine, soft music and a sexy artist who is trying to seduce you. Except, Woody Allen is your tour guide, so it’s also going to include a crazy, gun-toting ex-wife. Still worth it? You bet your ass it is!
Vicky Cristina Barcelona represents the third pairing for Allen and Scarlett Johansson, and like 2005’s Match Point, this one scores big.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) have the amazing good fortune to spend the summer in Barcelona with family friends (Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn). Trying to finish her degree in Catalan studies, Vicky is looking to learn about the culture while Cristina is looking to learn about the people. Or one person, at least. As the narrator (Christopher Evan Welch), who is sometimes too helpful in spelling things out, explains, the two women are similar in every way but love. Vicky’s perfect man — rich, handsome, eager — remains in the states to work and look for homes. Cristina, who doesn’t know what her perfect man looks like, is just looking. When sexy artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) invites them away for the weekend, Vicky only goes to protect Cristina from jumping into bed with him.
Of course, in a Woody Allen world nothing is ever simple, and Vicky finds herself drawn to everything that she believes is counter to her vision of life. Juan Antonio is the ultimate bad boy — everyone knows he’s trouble but who can resist herself? Bardem leaves behind the horrible hair of No Country for Old Men (that honor goes to Johansson for her overly processed blond mop), and when he turns on the accent it’s swoon time in Barcelona.
Fortunately, just as the Vicky-Cristina-Juan Antonio triangle starts to get old, Maria Elena (PenÃ©lope Cruz), Juan Antonio’s suicidal and homicidal ex-wife, shows up. It’s the extra spark needed to really make the film burn.
Allen’s script is like fine wine: dry with a good finish — and it takes a refined palette to truly enjoy. Some are going to say the film is pretentious, and that’s a totally fair assessment. But that’s also like going into a Steven Seagal film and coming out complaining that it was violent. What else did you expect? This is Woody Allen. The script is pretentious, funny, incredibly witty, and just a little wacky. It’s fantastic.
Johansson and Hall are well-suited to play off each other; they embody the neuroses of their characters and add an honest element to the friendship that could have easily been lost, making you believe in a friendship that would otherwise seem unlikely. Hall perfects Vicky’s cool exterior. Even at Vicky’s most vulnerable, Hall holds something back, keeping it all in check. Johansson, playing the lost and forever searching Cristina, borders on annoying, but manages to save her character in the end by exerting just enough restraint to keep Cristina from being pathetic.
It’s Cruz and Bardem, though, who steal the spotlight. Bardem is everything that Juan Antonio needs to be — sexy, seductive and irresistible. But from the minute she enters the frame, Cruz owns the film. Wild, passionate and beautiful, Cruz is absolutely mesmerizing. Paired with Bardem, the two create chemistry aplenty for Juan Antonio and Elena Maria’s volatile, scary and exciting relationship.
Allen explores love in his latest film — transient, fleeting, all-encompassing love that can’t be denied or escaped. For some, it’s a gift; for others, a curse. Allen uses every character to approach love from a different angle, adding new layers to the already complex themes and characters. Best of all, while doing so he takes you on a mesmerizing tour of Barcelona, transporting you into a world where anything could happen — and where anyone could fall in love.
As Juan Antonio says, it takes a poet to really capture and understand the beauty of love. Perhaps calling Allen a poet would be going too far, but in Vicky Cristina Barcelona he has created something beautiful.