Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen movie, 2008): Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson

For a long time, I was a huge fan of Woody Allen‘s movies.

Sleeper cracked me up as a young teen. Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Stardust Memories were masterpieces. So were Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors a little later on. Other films, like Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Radio Days were sweet, satisfying slices of nostalgia and humor.

Then, in the early 1990s, came Allen’s split from Mia Farrow and her subsequent allegations against him. Try as I might to appreciate the art apart from the personal life of the artist, a lot of my personal enthusiasm for Woody Allen films evaporated.

At the same time, Allen began turning out a long string of miscues. Many of these more recent films are beautifully shot in luxurious foreign locations. They star contemporary name actors of great mystique who are all absolutely obeisant about the honor of working with Mr. Allen. But while they still feature the same Windsor EF Elongated titles and jazz/classical soundtracks as in previous works, the storytelling falls flat and the jokes are forced.

I keep waiting for something matching Allen’s previous brilliance, but Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not it.

Rebecca Hall plays Vicky, a practical and reasonable woman engaged to some upstanding, dependable guy who wears polo shirts. Scarlett Johansson plays Christina, an impulsive rebel perpetually dissatisfied with her status quo. They are in Barcelona, because that’s where Mr. Allen decided to shoot the movie.

Well, Barcelona and also Oviedo, which is a stomping ground of Juan Antonio Gonzalo. Juan Antonio, played by Javier Bardem, is a dark and brazen artist who soon invites both women to fly with him to Oviedo in a small plane, see his favorite crucifix in a chapel there, and share his bed.

This moment, nine minutes in, crackles with promise and tension. Unfortunately, the potential is unfulfilled. From here, the story starts down a series of dead ends, following each for a while before abruptly dropping the thread and starting another.

It’s forty more minutes before we finally meet Juan Antonio’s crazy ex-wife María Elena. She is played by Penélope Cruz, who is so fantastic and funny that you almost don’t mind the plot repeatedly falling apart.

The good: Javier Bardem has an electrifying presence. Watching him invite and challenge the two women early on, my wife Amy momentarily lost her breath. Penélope Cruz is a hysterical, competitive whirlwind. She has sparkled brilliantly before, in movies like Volver, and this Oscar-winning performance reveals still more facets.

The bad: Christopher Evan Welch‘s narration is awful. He sounds like John Cusack reading the text for the first time between flights in an airport closet. Rebecca Hall’s part, meanwhile, is written entirely in Woody Allen’s voice, which both distracts from her charisma and spoils the delivery. “Granada,” from Isaac Albéniz’s sublime Suite española, Op. 47, is reprised so many times that it actually becomes annoying.

The indifferent: The movie has almost nothing to do with actual people. It’s merely an excuse for Woody Allen to work in Spain, and an elaborate ploy to make Penélope Cruz kiss Scarlett Johansson. It is the routine ménage à trois fantasy of an old man who happens to be able to get major talents to act it out for him. To their credit, they inject as much passion as possible into the lifeless story. But for all of Allen’s toying with his sexual subject matter, he chickens out as soon as anything begins to get hot.

In the end, he leaves us with the phony mystery of what is missing. This is not so hard to figure out: Multi-dimensional characters and a compelling story.

I give Vicky Cristina Barcelona an ambivalent three stars at Netflix.

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