'Barcelona,' what a trip

Staff WriterAugust 15, 2008 

  • Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall, Patricia Clarkson

    Director: Woody Allen

    Length: 1 hour, 31 minutes

    Web site: www.vickycristina-movie.com

    Theaters: Cary: Crossroads. Chapel Hill: Varsity. Durham: Southpoint. Raleigh: Brier Creek, Rialto.

    Rating: PG-13 (mature thematic material involving sexuality, and smoking)

There's nothing quite like watching four beautiful people drink expensive wine, listen to Spanish guitar under the stars of Barcelona and have threesomes to make you realize your summer wasn't as good as you thought.

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona," Woody Allen's 39th movie, is a perfect August film. The story is simple: American tourists Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) spend the summer in Barcelona.

The pair are best friends but have starkly different attitudes about life. Vicky is a pragmatic academic who intends to marry a man who "values commitment" in the fall. Cristina is an idealistic, creative soul who cycles through relationships easily and has trouble figuring out what she really wants to spend her life doing.

At an art gallery, the two meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a suave painter who immediately asks them to spend the weekend with him. Vicky, who channels Allen's signature anxieties, loses composure and falls in love after one night, spending much of the summer troubled by thoughts of her imminent marriage. Cristina, however, is less tied down and ends up entering a relationship with Juan Antonio.

Midway through, enter the fiery Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio's unstable and thoroughly complicated ex-wife. Cristina is living at Juan's at this point, but Maria Elena moves back in with them after a suicide attempt.

Cruz's scenes are the most hilarious, and she is the real standout of the four leads. Allen makes playful fun at a common criticism of Cruz -- that she's only good in her Spanish roles -- and allows her to move between languages with ease.

This is another film where Cruz radiates beauty despite eccentricities, so don't be alarmed if your mouth is agape during scenes in which Cristina shoots and develops photographs of Maria Elena. Penelope Cruz is really talented -- and she's also really hot. My only qualm is that her character is introduced so late that viewers don't get adequate time to learn about her.

Hints about the sex scenes between Bardem, Cruz and Johansson dominated prerelease buzz, but the film has generated a fitting PG-13 rating.

Rebecca Hall gets the last laugh. Despite being absent from sex talk and the movie's seductive poster, she gets the most screen time. The British actress commands her American accent, and though she can't compare to Mia Farrow or Diane Keaton, she does a thorough job of keeping the Allen tradition alive.

Bardem is winning, though his character is written with mostly two-dimensional lines, aided by his husky accent. For American audiences familiar with only his haunting portrayal of a serial killer in "No Country for Old Men," this is an opportunity to get to know his sexy side.

The real star, though, is Spain. Allen captures Barcelona's artistic masterpieces as well as its bustling street life in whooping shots of beautiful landscapes with authentic musical scores. Just as Allen has shot plenty of homages to Manhattan, this is his best attempt at honoring the beauty of a different country, one he isn't as familiar with but still admires.

I didn't have a threesome in Spain this summer, and chances are neither did you. That's why you're going to want to see "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

sadia.latifi@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4768

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