Vicky Cristina Barcelona is certainly Woody Allen's weightiest film since Match Point, and may be his best since...well...
The film possesses many small virtues, but foremost among them is one undeniable fact: Allen delivers, unequivocally, his most complex and engaging screenplay in years--even better, really, than his work on the very powerful Match Point. His script ebbs and flows with the characters, lingering on lovely moments and carefully truncating others. It wanders with curiosity, yet embodies the very succinct nature of a Woody Allen screenplay: it simultaneously moves with a brisk efficiency and yet feels like we are soaking in its characters for hours.
The set-up is fairly simple. Vicky (Rebecca Hall), uptight, buttoned-down, and full aware of what she wants in life, and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), open, wandering, and completely unsure of her ultimate desires, are close friends who take a small vacation to Barcelona. Their divergent personalities come to a head when they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a very free-spirited painter whose passion for nearly all of life's pleasures leads Vicky and Cristina down a strange, halted, complex love triangle, one that goes off on so many interesting tangents that it barely registers as a love triangle at all. A more traditional triad develops when Juan Antonio's equally passionate (to the point of being mentally imbalanced) ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), re-enters the picture, and ignites a journey of passion and self-discovery for Cristina, who begins to fall in love with both artists. Vicky, meanwhile, does all she can to force the passion and uncertainty out of her life, and does so by (ironically) marrying her boring fiancee (Chris Messina) in Spain, on a whim.
How these characters' lives casually flow in and out of each other's is one of the subtle charms of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and the very talented cast allows the path of the characters to unfold with a quiet grace. These characters feel real, and they flirt with the challenge of drastically altering their emotions and ideologies in ways that feel completely unforced. Rebecca Hall, new to American eyes, has been getting a lot of pub for this film, and rightfully so--her role as the wary and conservative Vicky is unexpectedly complex, and the fact that Hall plays the character with such outward calm and subtle inner turmoil makes her all the more intriguing. Conversely, the world is fully aware of the enormous talents of Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, and Penelope Cruz, but they are all at the very top of their games here. For Johansson, this feels like an acting renewal after several lackluster projects; Bardem, coming off his No Country Oscar, is completely the opposite of Anton Chigurgh, charming and sexy and effortlessly charismatic, though perhaps dangerous for the same reasons; and Penelope Cruz is absolutely brilliant, crafting a character that is passionate and volatile and absolutely riveting at every turn. With Almodovar's Volver and now this film, the once undervalued Cruz has risen to the highest level of current acting talent, and in Maria Elena creates one of the most iconic characters in all of Woody Allen's films.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona does suffer from a couple of its director's more nagging vices, namely the use of an obligatory narration track that distracts from the on-screen drama more than enhances it. Allen doesn't always employ narration in his films, but when he does it becomes this glaring device that is literary for the sake of being literary. Such is the case here, and the problem is made all the more distracting by the narrator himself, character actor Christopher Evan Welch, whose voice has no gravitas and who sounds geeky and over-excited, like he's trying too hard to get all the words out. Perhaps that was the point; I hope it wasn't. And maybe with a stronger, more believable voice delivering the words, the narration wouldn't be such an issue. As it currently stands, though, it is the only sizable flaw in a very sumptuous film.
The film's ever-intriguing screenplay, too, eventually stumbles ever-so-slightly in the third act; Allen has a thing for characters who decide abruptly what they want/don't want, or how their lives should change, and in this movie it feels like that particular writing peccadillo is merely used to keep the film's brisk running time on track. Of course, the shift is signaled by the lame narrator and comes so far out of left field that it nearly interrupts the genuine, sensuous stimulant of watching these wonderful actors intertwine. But by the end, Allen's penchant for quick shifts almost works better here than in many of his past films, because Vicky Cristina Barcelona is essentially a walkabout of a film, a motion picture where the characters wander in and out of beautiful locales and in and out of each other's lives, beds, and hearts. It is about characters clearly defining what they don't want and shouldn't have, but hedging on the ever-important matters of what they do want...what they need.