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Javier Bardem and Rebecca Hall star in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
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Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Written and Directed by Woody Allen

Starring Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, and Penelope Cruz

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More than those of probably any other working director, Woody Allen’s films are released with the paralyzing burden of expectation. Woody Allen is supposed to be, without exception, funny. The expectations extend further; his films must carry a sense of humor that fits with the public perception of Allen himself: anal, narcissistic, self-deprecating. When Allen releases films that don’t really fit this mold, people tend to freak out.

Allen did his best to cripple expectations with his dark, fantastic film Match Point. Like Match Point, his latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, employs a soberer European setting and a subtle social exploration. But while Match Point was tight, brooding, and sexual, Vicky Cristina is young, breezy, and romantic. Match Point was a stronger, more complete film, but Vicky Cristina Barcelona is vibrant and cool.

Allen moves through an idyllic, richly colored Barcelona with his two female protagonists: Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), two mildly clueless American women, ready to absorb the considerable amounts of art, music, and wine that Barcelona has to offer. As the cheesy, but fitting, voice-over narration informs us, Vicky is a steady pragmatist — engaged to a practical, successful douchebag — while Cristina is an aimless romantic, who has barreled through a series of men. Both actresses feel a little lifeless and stiff — particularly Johansson — and the film never really takes off until the entrance of their incomparable Spanish colleagues.

Javier Bardem enters first, as the mysterious, charming painter, Juan Antonio. His role as the steamy Spanish lover is such a stereotype, it should just make the film feel staler, but Bardem delivers a smooth, effortless performance as Juan Antonio attempts to (and succeeds in) seducing Vicky and Cristina simultaneously.

The interactions between Juan Antonio, Vicky, and Cristina are sharp, fun, and interesting, but the film shifts gears entirely when Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) surges onto the screen. Cruz displays an overpowering wit and presence that diminishes Johansson entirely. With the entrance of Maria Elena, the film forges a web of complex sexual interactions between the characters, built around the seemingly endless series of outbursts and breakdowns of Maria Elena (who also has the tendency to assault the characters with various weapons and objects).

Vicky Cristina doesn’t rise to a bold, explosive climax but ends with an inconclusive sort of melancholy. We are left incapable of making any overarching assumptions about the film or characters (despite the narrator’s attempt to in the beginning) except that everything, particularly love, is transient.