Although probably trying to do both, Woody Allen's latest film makes a better travelogue of Spain's seaside metropolis than tour of the human heart — and with much more apparent ease. We feel little sense of the inevitability of the relationships and learn little from Allen's presumed point about the many variations of "love." But in Allen's adoring lens, the beauty of the Catalan architecture and lifestyle — his new New York — becomes fully ingratiating.
The tone of the film is hazy, start to finish. Where the work of Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz, as the main Spanish characters, burns with no-nonsense Iberian fervor, the English speakers range from Allanesque quippishness to his beloved — by him and by his fans — stuttering self-consciousness. All is held together with breezy voiceover narration. Is this Allen's dabbling in postmodernism? Or is it disdain for the viewer?
Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall (completely burying her British accent) play American best friends who travel to Barcelona for a summer vacation that turns into lessons — learned or not — in love. Johansson's Cristina is, in Allen's fine tradition, a sexually eager little thing with not much else going on in her life, and Johansson plays her with near emotional retardedness. Hall's Vicky is a scholar, not that this objectivity consistently helps her relationships; this may be one of Hall's better efforts, although she in particular succumbs to more-than-occasional self-consciousness. Bardem plays Juan Antonio, the Spanish artist who embodies the earthy and the saintly; the actor reveals an immense well filled with the shyness of a teen girl and the steady capableness of a fully matured man. Cruz is captivating as Juan Antonio's ex-wife, a mix of gothic lunatic and Georgia O'Keeffe.
As Vicky's Aunt Judy, who lives in Spain, Patricia Clarkson gives the most artificial of the performances here, general and seeming to try too hard for Allen's style. As Judy's husband, Kevin Dunn does interesting work, showing an edge that reflects much backstory. As Vicky's fiancé, Chris Messina is a wonderfully free, ease-filled actor. But the acting highlight here just may be Josep Maria Domènech as Juan Antonio's father, in an altogether too brief, highly watchable performance, with all the naturalness Allen seems to hope for and without any of the tics he winds up with in his comedies. The other pleasing element is the fine narration by Christopher Evan Welch; it may be the only solid clue to the tone of the piece, evidencing a kind of amorality tale with lessons we must dig deep for and perhaps never uncover. Welch's tone of voice keeps reminding us that this story could be an allegory of sorts; otherwise we'd wonder why Vicky and Cristina are without parental influences who surely would have said, "Snap out of it."
Written and directed by: Woody Allen.
Starring: Javier Bardem, Patricia Clarkson, Penélope Cruz, Kevin Dunn, Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Messina.