Woody Allen's Verbal Feast In 'Barcelona'

Penélope Cruz in Woody Allen's
Penélope Cruz in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." (By Victor Bello -- Weinstein Co.)
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By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008

It's the same old opening credits, the elegant white font on the black background, but the music is new. The pulse of a Spanish guitar replaces the big-band brass that usually heralds Woody Allen's films. Barcelona subs for Manhattan. The eroticism of Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson replaces the neuroticism of an aging New Yorker wringing his hands.

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" goes down like sweet Riesling instead of a chalky matzoh ball, and it's all thanks to Allen's extended holiday in Europe.

It's done nothing but good for him -- and us. See his recent England-set Shakespearean tragedies "Match Point" and "Cassandra's Dream," in which he's pointed the camera toward something more reflective instead of self-reflexive. Now, from Spain, Allen brings a movie that plays like a greatest-hits album. "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is nothing we haven't heard before, but the packaging is gorgeous.

And that's not just because the cast includes two of Spain's best (and best-looking) actors, Bardem and Penélope Cruz, as Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, two divorced painters who have driven each other to -- among other things -- attempted homicide, or because their explosive relationship is reignited by the luscious Johansson. "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is beautiful because Allen blends an expatriate hipness with the sharpness of his older dramas and the effervescence of his older comedies.

So Cristina. In Barcelona. With Vicky, her best friend, played by the disarming British actress Rebecca Hall. Cristina is blond and carefree and unsure of what she wants from life and love. Vicky is brunet and staid and engaged to a thoroughly satisfactory man who wears khakis. When the two friends join Juan Antonio for a weekend in the country, both are charmed, and they fall for him in different ways. Cruz, as Maria Elena, blows into the movie almost an hour later and fractures the narrative hypotenuse of the love triangle. Cristina, the superego, only knows what she doesn't want out of life. Vicky, the ego, can't escape from what she does want from life. And Juan Antonio and Maria Elena are the lustful, vulgar ids who tear through the women's uncertainty and decorum.

Woody has given us Freudian love triangles before (in "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "September"). He's given us lustful rogues (himself in "Manhattan") and confused heroines (Mia Farrow in "The Purple Rose of Cairo"). He's spat out scripts that rehash the ecstatic futility of loving and living ("Love & Death," "Crimes & Misdemeanors," "Everyone Says I Love You").

"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is different because it's really about Vicky and Cristina, and Juan Antonio and Maria Elena. This time Allen's philosophical musings emerge subtly from the interaction of these characters and their choices instead of through trademark dialogue. Though he relies too much on the curt observations of an omniscient narrator, the movie still feels more casual, more painterly, more about great characters than the invocation of Freud or Balzac or Ernest Becker. Through these characters and the natural performances, and without worrying about landing punch lines or wringing hands, Allen lets the movie unfurl toward a sublime conclusion and final shot, the kind that makes you sigh with gratitude (or relief) that he's in firm control of this phase of his career.

"Life is short," Juan Antonio says as a come-on to Vicky and Cristina, "life is dull, life is full of pain. The trick is to enjoy life, accepting it has no meaning whatsoever," and we think immediately of Allen's opening monologue from "Annie Hall" more than 30 years ago: Life is "full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly."

He's not lazily re-chewing this theme in 2008. It's merely a familiar melodic riff deftly woven into a mellower, deeper progression of chords.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (97 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for adult themes, sexuality and smoking.

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