Vicky Cristina Barcelona

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For months we have wondered why Woody Allen gave his new film the unwieldy title of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” The answer is a bit anti-climactic: the movie opens with a narrator saying, “Vicky and Cristina were spending the summer in Barcelona.” So. There you go.

The film itself, much more nimble than its weird title, is a mature, sexy look at non-traditional relationships, a topic on which Woody Allen may be considered an expert. The Spanish setting, the saucy content, and the presence of Penelope Cruz make it easy to compare the film to the work of Pedro Almodovar, and I suspect Allen wouldn’t entirely disagree with you. But the usual Allen-ish neuroses and angst are here, too, and the filmmaker’s unmistakable fingerprints are all over the place.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is a dark-haired, down-to-earth, serious woman who’s getting a master’s degree in Catalan identity and has a fiance, Doug (Chris Messina), back in New York. Her best friend, Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), is blond, romantic, and tortured by love, Vicky’s opposite in every way. The two are approached in a restaurant by Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), an impossibly suave artist who invites them both to accompany him on a weekend getaway. He makes this offer within seconds of meeting them, and his smoldering forthrightness annoys Vicky and mesmerizes Cristina. They go with him, but Vicky’s only along as a chaperone for Cristina. Vicky has the very sensible policy of not trusting painters who pick up strange women in restaurants and whisk them away to vacation homes

Inevitably, Vicky succumbs to some of Juan Antonio’s charms, though not as completely as Cristina, who is absolutely smitten with the fellow. Cristina and the artist develop a relationship — a relationship that is torn to shreds 50 minutes into the film, when Juan Antonio’s fiery, unstable ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), barges in and takes over their lives and the movie.

With a characteristically smart mix of comedy and drama (and guided, curiously, by an unseen narrator), the film’s dialogue sounds surprisingly refreshed when it’s spoken, as it often is here, in subtitled Spanish or broken English. Moreover, Bardem and Cruz bring a vitality that Allen’s work hasn’t seen since he converted to Scarlett Johansson-ism a few years ago, and the local scenery, shot by acclaimed Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, is gorgeous. How often does a Woody Allen film LOOK beautiful?

The film is ultimately about the many different permutations that successful relationships can have: monogamous, polygamous, polyamorous, faithful, unfaithful, kinky, and vanilla. Who’s to say that one is better than the other as long as everyone involved is happy and satisfied? And why does everything need to have a label? Allen’s own romantic life has been unorthodox, to say the least (you’ll recall he dated and eventually married his adopted daughter, 35 years his junior), but “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” doesn’t feel like a defense. On the contrary, it feels like the work of a man at peace with love, no matter how thorny or complicated it may be.

B+ (1 hr., 36 min.; PG-13, some fairly strong sensuality.)

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