From the late 1960s to the early ’90s, Woody Allen was one of the giants of film comedy, writing, directing and often starring in one great movie after another. But in the wake of “Celebrity,” “Hollywood Ending” and “Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” being a Woody Allen fan can be as frustrating as cheering for the Chicago Cubs. You keep hoping for a glimpse of his former genius, but you generally go home disappointed.
Send the word to the legions of frustrated fans: “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a glorious return to form. Funny, intelligent, provocative and heartfelt, the film will remind moviegoers why they ever loved Woody Allen. It’s too bad that Whit Stillman already took “Barcelona” as a title, because this film bookends nicely with one of Allen’s masterpieces, “Manhattan.”
The film follows two women to Barcelona for the summer, and both characters are familiar in the Allen canon: Responsible Vicky (Rebecca Hall) plans to spend the summer working on her thesis on Catalan identity before returning to New York to marry her very stable and unexciting fiancé Doug (Chris Messina). Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), on the other hand, is a free spirit, burning with a desire to create and to live an artist’s life but unsure what she has to say or how she can express it.
The two young women meet smoldering artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who invites them away for the weekend, during which he promises to show them his favorite art and, he hopes, to make love to them. Vicky is aghast at his blunt proposition, but Cristina — given to falling into tempestuous love affairs — is smitten, so the three of them fly off to Oviedo, where he shows them the town and spends a lot of time talking about his volatile ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), whom he obviously still loves.
Not to give away any plot specifics, but — as often happens in the best Woody Allen movies — the ways of the heart are unpredictable and confusing, leaving everyone shaken up and befuddled, wondering what to do next and whom to trust.
Bringing additional zest to the extraordinary screenplay is a delectable ensemble. Johansson seems to get Cristina on a level that has eluded her in previous collaborations with Allen; I never felt like I was catching her acting. Hall (“Starter for 10”) is a relative newcomer to film, but she perfectly inhabits Vicky, making her believable as both someone playing it safe and a young woman starved for adventure. (The British actress’ mid-Atlantic accent is also flawless.)
Bardem and Cruz, unsurprisingly, tear up the screen. On the heels of “Elegy,” Cruz continues to assert her comfort with acting in English, and her scenes with Bardem are downright explosive. (Audiences who know Bardem only as the creepy Anton Chigurh of “No Country for Old Men” will find his palpable sensuality to be a real revelation.) The supporting cast is just right as well, particularly Patricia Clarkson as Vicky’s family friend who knows a thing or two about illicit passion.
A writer recently posited that critics always seem quick to dub each new R.E.M. album and Woody Allen movie as the one that their longtime fans have eagerly awaited. I can’t speak for the new R.E.M., but I’m confident in saying that “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is Allen’s most satisfying film in nearly 20 years.