Woody Allen's movies once centered largely on New York City, but an upsurge in his work has coincided with his filming in European sites. The latest, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," is no exception.
Straight-laced Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and free spirit Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are two young American women on a summer junket to Spain. Both have different motivations for the trip - Vicky intends to study the culture of the region, while Cristina is hoping to find inspiration for her artistic endeavors.
One night, swept up in the romance of the Catalonian food, architecture and music of Barcelona, Cristina impulsively agrees for the pair to spend the weekend with charming local painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), much to the disdain of engaged Vicky. However, as the trio absorbs the sights and sounds of the northern Spanish city, Oviedo, sparks fly in all directions, leaving the friends unsure of what to do once they return to Barcelona.
Matters become even more complicated once Vicky's fiance (Chris Messina) comes to visit, and Juan Antonio's volatile ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) forces her way back into his life.
Johansson, starring in her third Allen movie, by now is the unofficial muse for the filmmaker, following in the footsteps of Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow. As the less grounded of the title duo, she is more than pleasing as she attempts to find herself while continuing a fling with the charismatic artist expertly portrayed by Oscar winner Bardem.
In a significantly more nuanced performance, Hall is no less likable as Vicky, who cannot deny her mutual attraction to Juan Antonio as she copes with her bourgeois beau. Patricia Clarkson makes a fine appearance as a family friend who tries to advise Vicky to act on her emotions.
However, Cruz outshines her and everybody else as MarÃa Elena, Juan Antonio's brilliant but destructive ex, who soon entrances her husband and Cristina into a highly dysfunctional relationship.
Filmed on location, Allen captures the aesthetic majesty of Spain with even greater flair than he did urban England in recent entries such as "Match Point" and "Scoop," both starring Johansson.
Besides possessing an eye for landscapes, the writer/director skillfully frames his shots, encapsulating the actors onscreen with all the sensibilities of the old pro he is. Similarly, he manages to craft a "love pentagon" of sorts, as the lives and loves of Vicky and Cristina overlap haphazardly.
Allen also employs an understated, but remarkable use of music, including a leitmotif handling of Giulia y Los Tellarini's beautiful Spanish song, "Barcelona," which recurs most often when hearts are fluttering and the characters are on the verge of succumbing to that fickle feeling, amor.
Still, there are flaws to be found.
The story drags considerably in the middle, becoming slightly tedious in comparison to the very jolting and worthwhile payoff that follows. Another fault is the narration provided by actor Christopher Evan Welch, which is often superfluous and occasionally downright distracting.
Still, the movie is altogether triumphant despite these shortcomings due to Allen's well-honed skill in fashioning convincing plausible affairs of the heart.
Gorgeous to look at and passionately felt, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is a marvel of a love story, with the kind of steamy, mature liaisons the average American audience does not get to view often enough.