'Vicky Cristina Barcelona': Spanish Lessons, By Kurt Loder

Late in the game, one of Woody Allen's best.

Getting out of New York was good for Woody Allen, as we know. After nearly 30 years of making movies there, he'd done the town. But maybe his relocation to London, the setting for his last three films, put insufficient distance between the man and his native metropolis. With his new picture, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," shot in Spain, Allen, at the age of 72, seems truly refreshed, set free, perhaps, by the linguistic shift and the bright Mediterranean sun.

New York still lurks in the background of the new movie, but it's a misty presence. When we first meet them, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), fresh from Manhattan, have arrived in Barcelona for a two-month summer vacation. They'll be staying with a pair of Vicky's distant relatives, Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and Mark (Kevin Dunn), veteran expatriates who have a beautiful home in the city and an apparently idyllic marriage. The girls immediately set about exploring the town, and we see the expected sights: the Sagrada Família, the Park Güell, a Miró exhibition. But despite Barcelona's abundant photogenic temptations, Allen resists turning the movie into a travelogue; his characters are the only local color he needs.

Vicky and Cristina are very different. Vicky is a sensible grad student who's engaged to marry her boyfriend, Doug (Chris Messina), as soon as she returns home from this last single-girl adventure. Doug is standard-issue good-looking and successful, but also smug and judgmental. Marriage, however, is part of Vicky's level-headed life plan, and Doug will have to do.

Cristina, on the other hand, is restless and unfulfilled. She sees herself as a bohemian romantic and yearns to be an artist, maybe a filmmaker. She's already directed a short film in New York, but she hates the way it turned out. She's also just dumped her most recent boyfriend and is now up for whatever.

One night, sipping wine with Vicky in a Barcelona restaurant, Cristina's eye is drawn to a magnetic figure across the room. This turns out to be Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a well-known painter. Noticing Cristina's unmistakable interest, he approaches her table with a proposition: She and Vicky should fly with him to picturesque Oviedo for the weekend: "We'll drink good wine, we'll make love." The plane, he says, leaves in an hour. Vicky is appalled, but Cristina is frankly interested, so off they all go.

With his big, fleshy features (his head could pass for a Rodin sculpture), Bardem might seem an unlikely love man to those who know him only as the dead-eyed killer of "No Country for Old Men." Here, though, he's light and charming — not a manipulative Lothario, but a genuine romantic. Cristina, unsurprisingly, offers no resistance to his advances. Vicky is a harder sell, but eventually even she, to her own surprise, comes around.

Things quickly become complicated, in the Woodian manner (as always, he wrote the script). Back in Barcelona again, Juan Antonio and Cristina, who has now moved in with him, are suddenly joined by his ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), a wild-eyed woman who ended their marriage, if not their tempestuous relationship, by stabbing him with a knife. Maria Elena is initially hostile toward Cristina. ("After all," she nonchalantly admits, "I've thought about killing you.") She eventually softens, though, and begins instructing Cristina in the art of photography. Soon comes that darkroom kiss you may have heard about.

Meanwhile, Vicky, hurt that Juan Antonio never called her after their night of love in Oviedo, instead receives a call from the increasingly annoying Doug, still back in New York, who's decided to fly over to Barcelona himself and marry Vicky there. Unfortunately, Vicky realizes that she has fallen in love with Juan Antonio. What next?

The picture has a romantic glow that recalls the Woody Allen of old and, of course, it's quite funny. ("If you don't start undressing me soon," Cristina tells the talkative Juan Antonio, "this is gonna turn into a panel discussion.") The actors, for the most part perfectly cast (especially Bardem, Cruz and the soon-to-be-less-little-known Hall), form one of the director's liveliest ensembles; and his autumnal assessment of human relations emerges naturally from the dynamics of the story. ("This whole thing about finding peace and happiness," Juan Antonio tells one of the women, "will pass.") You may leave the movie unexpectedly absorbed in life's melancholy complexities, but that's OK; you'll remember the glow.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Tropic Thunder," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

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