Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona Is Woody Allen at His Best

Woody Allen's career is experiencing a renaissance, or so we're told as filmgoers. The hit-and-miss days of the '90s and early millennium are gone thanks to his decision to start making movies overseas. This theory, unfortunately, only holds up if you ignore two of the four movies Allen has made during his so-called renaissance -- the abysmally bad Scoop and the only dull Cassandra's Dream. His latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, easily joins Match Point as one of his best from the past two decades, but I'd just like to understand how two out of four ain't just, you know, average? Batting .500 would make you the greatest baseball player that ever lived, but disappointing audiences 50% of the time sounds more like what we'd expect out of jokers like Michael Bay or Brett Ratner. Not the great Woody Allen.

Anyway, about Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a movie that doesn't deserve to appear in any review Bay or Ratner is referenced in, even though, you know, I just did exactly that. Sorry. Like most of Allen's best work, Vicky Cristina straddles the line between comedy and drama; the writer-director explored this notion at great and obvious length in Melinda and Melinda, but here is more subtle with a story about real human confusion and anguish over the nature of relationships that just so happens to also make you laugh most of the time. The result is a joy to sit through, a film full of pithy insights and wonderful questions about how and why we do and don't work as couples.

Recently engaged Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is studying in Barcelona, while her blow-with-the-wind best friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) has tagged along looking for adventure, romance, anything to excite her easily excited heart. It's not long before they meet the mysterious and handsome artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who promptly asks the pair to fly with him to a distant town where they will drink wine, laugh, and screw. Allen enjoys playing with Spanish stereotypes throughout Vicky Cristina, and Juan Antonio is definitely the Latin lover women dream about when they dream about visiting Latin-y places. Vicky, who is very logical and very uptight, immediately dismisses Juan Antonio's offer, but Cristina falls for his charms and agrees. The result of the friends' mini-break isn't quite what Vicky expected.

Once back in Barcelona, Cristina moves in with Juan Antonio leaving Vicky to secretly pine away for her Latin lover. The always-unsettled Cristina finds artistic inspiration with Juan Antonio, and then even more with his ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who once tried to kill Juan Antonio and comes to stay with them.

Juan Antonio and Maria Elena belong together, but can't function together either; they're downright homicidal. Cristina is the missing element to their happiness and, before long, the three are bouncing between beds. Vicky finds this all very confusing, even if she wishes she could be more like her friend. These unnatural dynamics are what make Vicky Cristina so much fun. The one character who behaves as we expect an adult to, Vicky, is also the one character we most don't want to be like. Allen has thus managed to create a movie about people we are drawn to while consciously knowing they're absolutely terrible for us -- like just about every person we've ever been attracted to. Relationships are like that, always sucking you in for the wrong reasons. Sometimes it's best just to laugh through the tears.

Grade: B+

If you're interested in learning more about Vicky Cristina Barcelona, check out my recent interviews with legendary director Woody Allen and star Scarlett Johansson.