There's a terrific movie buried in Woody Allen's tale of two American girls broadening their horizons in Barcelona, and every once in a while tantalizing glimpses penetrate the twee narration and mannered performances.
Post-graduates Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are the kind of best friends who only exist in movies: Opposites in every respect who somehow share a deep and irrevocable bond that survives every test and trial. Flighty Cristina has delusions of artistic temperament but despises her only creation, the short film she made in her last year at college. Cristina flits from man to man in search of some ineffable fulfillment -- she doesn't know what she wants, but she knows what she doesn't. Analytical Vicky, who's engaged to the sensible Doug (Chris Messina) and is writing a master's thesis that parses the nuances of Catalan identity, values stability over sensation and has a distant and indulgent relative, Judy (Patricia Clarkson), who shares a Barcelona villa with her financier husband, Mark (Kevin Dunn), and graciously invites Vicky and Cristina to spend the summer with them. Their circle of friends and acquaintances includes natural-born sensualist Jose Antonio Gonzalez (Javier Bardem), who introduces himself to the girls by proposing an earthy menage a trois:: Cristina is intrigued and Vicky resents his presumption, Cristina winds up enmeshed in an emotionally complex relationship with Jose and his frighteningly volatile ex-wife, Marie Elena (Penelope Cruz), while Vicky and Jose share a one-night stand that wreaks havoc with her cut-and-dried world view.
The best thing about VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA is that it acknowledges the maddening complexity of desire: Jose appears cocksure and instinctively at ease with his sensual nature but proves as insecure as a schoolgirl, Cristina is forced to examine her trendy bohemianism and Vicky must reconsider her rigidly judgmental ideas about right and wrong behavior.
Allen's notorious obliviousness about class and money is painfully apparent -- Barcelone is a series of photo-ops and no-one ever has to get to work or ask what anything costs -- but had he refrained from adding a pointless and condescending voice-over by actor Christopher Evan Welch the uniformly strong performances might have prevailed. As it is, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA may well be Allen's best film in two decades, which would be a stronger recommendation were it not so painfully compromised. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh