Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona


AFTER years of diminishing returns, Woody Allen spectacularly returns to form with "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," his funniest movie in years and arguably his sexiest.


Yeah, I know you've heard this from me - and from other critics, who overpraised the oh-so-serious "Match Point" - but this is the genuine comeback, a romantic comedy that's a major summer entertainment with serious underpinnings.


Going where the money is, Allen has moved his latest production from London to Barcelona, where the sunny landscape and Antoni Gaudi's spectacular architecture seem to have provided the inspiration he's largely been lacking since, say, "Deconstructing Harry."


Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are young American friends who are spending the summer at the vast home of Vicky's aunt (Patricia Clarkson) in Barcelona.


The level-headed and somewhat neurotic Vicky is studying Catalan culture and preparing to marry a somewhat dull fellow-New Yorker (Chris Messina) in the financial industry, settle down in the suburbs and have babies.


Her friend is more moody and tempestuous with vaguely artistic aspirations and disdain for the upper-middle-class existence that Vicky aspires to.


Cristina is drawn like a moth to the flame of Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a Spanish painter who oozes charm - especially after she learns his ex-wife tried to kill him with a knife.


When Juan Antonio extends a late-night invitation to the two women to spend a weekend with him in picturesque Oviedo, Cristina accepts and Vicky very grudgingly goes along.


An illness temporarily sidelines Cristina and a tipsy Vicky is surprised to find herself being willingly seduced by her host. Which complicates things when Cristina recovers and moves in with Juan Antonio - and even more when Vicky's fiancee arrives for an extended visit.


Allen stirs the erotic pot further - one night, Juan Antonio's ex-wife Maria Elena tries to kill herself and the artist brings the disheveled woman home to live with him and the initially annoyed Cristina.


Maria Elena - played in extravagant, Oscar-worthy style as a nutty genius by Penelope Cruz - isn't crazy about Cristina at first, either. It turns out, though, that the younger woman's presence is the missing ingredient that allows her and Juan Antonio to live together harmoniously and inspire each other's art.


Maria Elena also encourages the insecure Cristina to pursue her interest in photography and that's not all that's going on in the darkroom - there's a steamy lesbian kiss (that lasts all of five seconds) and ultimately a threesome that (sorry) mostly takes place off camera.


Well, by Woody Allen standards, that's sexy.


The setup seems too good to be true, and of course it is. Cristina inevitably grows restless in a stable environment, while Vicky's guilt over her night with Juan Antonio gradually develops into major confusion over who and what she really wants in her life.


Bardem and Cruz (who speaks mostly Spanish in what amount to an in-joke about her famous lack of comfort delivering English-language dialogue) are combustible together.


I'm not a huge fan of Johansson, but Allen uses his self-described muse better here (with a platinum-blond dye job and the relatively passive role of Cristina) than in either "Match Point" or "Scoop."


Hall, the 26-year-old daughter of British director Peter Hall, has a star-making role. Extremely funny and skeptical, Vicky is a classic Woody heroine.


Helping make "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" go down smoothly is Javier Aguireesarobe's sun-dappled photography and a soundtrack of catchy Spanish songs. One small complaint for Woody: the wall-to-wall narration, which is sometimes redundant.


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