Starring: Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz
Directed by: Woody Allen (“Match Point”)
Written by: Woody Allen (“Scoop”)
Calling a Woody Allen film the best film of this summer (excluding animated trash-compacting robots, of course) might rub some comic book fans the wrong way, but with “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” the New York City-born auteur has returned to form and does it out of his East-Coast element.
The setting might not be in Manhattan like many of Allen’s films, but in Spain, the three-time Oscar winner has found a fanciful way to display his unique take on the difference between passion and love in both relationships and fine art.
In the film, Oscar winner Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”) plays Juan Antonio, a Spanish painter who makes an indecent proposal to two American tourists vacationing Barcelona for the summer. When Juan Antonio audaciously walks up to Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and asks them to spend a weekend with him, the duo is bemused by his debonair style and disregard for possible rejection.
Vicky is engaged to be married and has no interest in Juan Antonio but joins him anyway, while Cristina, who had noticed the smooth talker earlier at an art gallery, is easily persuaded to take up the offer. Although it is a lovely weekend for the trio, the scheduled sexual escapades are altered when Cristina becomes ill and Vicky is left to fend off Juan Antonio’s charm.
The complexities of these characters are revealed even more when Allen pulls an ace from his sleeve in the second half of the film when he introduces us to Juan Antonio’s ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who’s fierce attitude and semi-psychotic behavior has been the downfall between her and her heart’s conquistador.
It’s Cruz’s intense performance that is the show-stopper in “Barcelona.” In her best role since earning an Oscar nomination for Pedro Almodovar’s 2006 film “Volver,” Cruz owns the screen as a woman scorned, not only by a love lost but also by life itself. When her and Bardem share scenes, the raw emotion and brutally honesty of the film climaxes. Whether the ex-lovers are fighting in the streets of Barcelona or when Juan Antonio is pleading with Maria Elena to speak English when she is talking in front of Cristina, Allen’s definitely got a handle on searing verbal conflict.
Cruz deserves another Oscar nomination this year in the Best Supporting category. Along with her performance, director Allen’s trek across the Atlantic is inspiring despite missing the boat on his last two voyages with “Cassandra’s Dream” and “Scoop.” But in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Allen writes a foursome of characters that epitomize what the word “desire” means. It truly is a sexually-engaging (and not just because of the buzzed ménage a trois scene between Bardem, Cruz, and Johansson) and fascinating cinematic travelogue of neurotic narrative.