Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the venerable director's fourth consecutive film made outside of the U.S. (and more importantly, outside of New York City), is made up of scenes featuring well-spoken, awkwardly-placed rich people drinking wine, eating excellent Spanish cuisine, and visiting beautifully-aged sets that range from odd museums to classic villas to an amusement park that looks too gorgeous to run electricity through. As if one needed more reason to love Barcelona, it now turns out they have a Tilt-A-Whirl.
When previously in London, Allen used all sharp tones, imagery wise. Even the shopfronts had perfect diction. At first, this yielded excellent results (Match Point) and the stage was set for a resurrection of the eternal Kvetch. Allen's two follow-ups, Scoop and Cassandra's Dream, debunked those hopes, proving that very same sharpness can lead to the visually mundane. In Spain, however, everything already has a built-in romance to it. The old-style Spanish houses, the Gaudi architecture, the auditory splendor of Spanish guitar playing: You're supposed to swoon on cue and you do.
When dealing with Allen personas as expectedly pretentious as Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson... again), two American students on holiday in Barcelona, the robust decor of the country helps. The two girls are enjoying a good glass of red when they are approached by José (Javier Bardem), who invites them for two days in Oviedo, full of good wine, sightseeing, and lovemaking. Vicky has a fiancé back in New York; Cristina warns him that he'll still have to seduce her.
As may be expected, both are seduced and, indeed, enjoy a round in the sack with the Spanish painter. Vicky sweeps away her romp with the artist but Cristina sees José as her perfect man: an unpredictable one. Her relationship with the painter gets a swift kick in the soft stuff when Maria Elena (a fantastic Penélope Cruz), José's ex-wife, shows up and takes both her ex and his new flame as her lovers. The arrival of Vicky's groom-to-be (Chris Messina) puts the whole farrago in a pressure cooker.
Despite all these messy emotional double-downs, Vicky Cristina Barcelona has a breezy skip to it. Its central quandary (Is stability more important than true passion?) isn't spelled out quite as heavily as it has been in Allen's similar both-sides-of-the-issue films, allowing the story to immerse the viewer on its own terms. The voice-over narration, courtesy of Christopher Evan Welch, lends a literary timbre to the film, rendering the narrative tone into something like a short story by Hemingway.
And yet the film never seems at home in this calm. The picture has a restlessness to it that often upsets the atmosphere of Allen's writing and the general ease of the performances. Perhaps it's Cruz and Bardem, agents of such chaotic force and intensity that Allen's film simply can't realign them to his sang-froid dialectic. Or perhaps it's Allen himself, unable to decide whether he's interested in an answer or just obsessed with the argument. Either way, the result is a palpable uneasiness that inflects both the film's lofty aspirations and its debonair composure.
This anxiousness doesn't bore, nor does it signal a complete misfire. After a career that covers 40-odd films, Vicky Cristina Barcelona certainly isn't one of Allen's best, but it's a country mile ahead of the bevy of mediocrity that showed up from the late '90s until Match Point. Like the man behind it, the film seems unsure of its bearings. Vicky shows Allen deflecting his chapter-and-verse filmmaking for better and worse and, in a career that was already cemented as legendary by the early '90s, that counts for something.