In “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” a Spanish artist named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) offers two beautiful young women a romantic weekend getaway. He promises, “We will see the sights, eat some good food, drink some good wine and make love.” Woody Allen’s latest film offers us all this and more in a breezy fashion that is almost as good as embarking on a European adventure of our own. Of course, behind the beautiful shots of Gaudi architecture in sun-drenched Barcelona lie Allen’s pessimistic views on life and love, making this movie an unusual and controversial romantic comedy.
The young women who Juan Antonio attempts so earnestly to seduce are Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and her best friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson). Vicky, a practical-minded student pursuing her master’s in Catalan culture, finds comfort in her stable life and relationship with a New York City businessman. The yin to her yang is Cristina, a free-spirited soul with artistic ambitions and an unwillingness to settle down until she discovers the kind of romance she wants. The two friends’ trip begins like any other summer vacation, until Juan Antonio turns the worlds of these women upside down with this one simple offer. From the start, Cristina is enamored of Juan Antonio’s charms and machismo after hearing rumors of his tempestuous relationship with his wife. She lunges at the opportunity to spend a weekend with him in his home town, and Vicky begrudgingly follows, but assures them both that a weekend of lovemaking is out of the question.
In a film by Woody Allen, however, nothing ever remains so simple, and a romantic mess quickly, predictably ensues. After spending a couple days with Juan Antonio due to Cristina’s sudden illness, even Vicky finds herself susceptible to his “joie de vivre” in a life that he fatalistically deems is “short, dull, full of pain.” Though this statement might not be the best pick-up line for most men, Juan Antonio is just too good, and the straight and narrow woman quickly becomes another notch in his bed post.
Their one night of passion rocks Vicky’s world forever as she realizes she will never be satisfied with her bore of a husband whose interests do not stray far from the golf course. Unattached Cristina, however, proves the better match for this artist who brings the traditional Don Juan to new levels. For what seem like days, Cristina and Juan Antonio are happily living together, until his ex-wife and fellow artist Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) moves in to raise hell. This fiery energy is carried out through the remainder of the film as this excellent ensemble grapples with the meaning of art, love and pleasure.
Allen’s perfect choice of cast members is what lifts “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” from an eccentric romantic comedy to an intriguing character study of individuals struggling to discover what they want. Javier Bardem is as seductive in this movie as he was haunting in “No Country for Old Men.” Complete with a new (less bizarre) haircut and European couture-sans-cattle gun, Bardem establishes from the start that his Juan Antonio will not be sleeping alone. The ease with which Bardem plays is matched by the three women who revolve around him. The smoldering Penelope Cruz truly lights up the screen with a fierce gleam in her eyes perfectly suited to Maria Elena, who is one part tortured artist and another part petulant child.
Allen’s film delves beyond what could have been an entirely superficial exterior by questioning whether one should aim for stability or passion in life. At the end of it, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” offers no answer to such a question, only characters a little more aware of what they don’t want, even if they remain unhappy. Ultimately, the movie will leave you feeling like you just returned from your own vacation: It was fun and diverting while it lasted, but now “real life” abruptly kicks in, and it ain’t so pretty.