Vicky Cristina Barcelona May 4, 2016
Woody Allen was made to make thoughtful character pieces, but he was also made to make summery larks more in touch with old-fashioned escapism than heaviness. During his early career, he specialized in the former — Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) were funny, sure, but they also hit you where it hurt in their sympathetic humanity. But in the last decade or so (or more, depending on what you think of Allen’s ‘90s), he’s drifted toward high-class popcorn entertainment; just look at the way the majority of his most recent films (Midnight in Paris , To Rome with Love , Magic in the Moonlight ) have taken place in faraway lands and are as light as a feather, working as euphoric escapes for even the most cynical of a viewer.
Some of his most die-hard fans have decried the way his films have become hit-or-miss as of late — he either makes frothy romps or searing comedy-dramas — but I’ve never found myself to be anything less than charmed with what he has to offer, even if the finished product is slighter than his best works. 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a sizzling combination of the aforementioned frothy romps and searing comedy-dramas, is Allen at his late-period prime.
Seventy-three upon release, it’s staggering how well-tuned his dialogue and his characters remain to be after decades in the business. Most filmmakers lose their touch after a long period of brilliance. Not Allen. Consider that he made his directorial debut with 1966’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, and that his remarkable craftsmanship has never disintegrated (despite a few uneven encounters). His relevance, and the excitement that arrives every year with a new movie, has held steady.
“Do we take him for granted?” Roger Ebert asks in the opening for his review of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. As someone who regularly rewatches his offerings (the latter, Manhattan Murder Mystery  and Sleeper  among them), I can say, at least in my experience, that I do not. Allen holds a special place in my heart, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona is no exception.
The last film in his string of works with modern muse Scarlett Johansson, the movie is a breathtaking comedy with pangs of drama and romance that make it as pleasurable as it is meaningful. It follows its eponymous heroines (played by a plucky Rebecca Hall and an earthily sensual Johansson, respectively) over the course of a single summer in Spain, where they partake in adventure and relaxation but also learn a lot about themselves and their desires.
Both are finishing up college and are beginning the journey of the rest of their lives. Vicky is level-headed and cautious, a square on the verge of marrying Doug (Chris Messina), a nice enough guy she isn’t so sure she loves. Cristina is a free-spirit who suffers from unremitting dissatisfaction; she drifts from hobby to hobby, from man to man, in touch with what she wants until her latest interest wanes. Vicky and Cristina have been close since first meeting in school, but this summer could be one in which spending time in each other’s company isn’t a pressing issue; self-indulgence is key.
Temptation comes in the form of Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a casanova of a painter who captures the interest of both women after a couple of fleeting glances. First, they catch wind of the man at an art show, intrigued by his dark good looks. But the next time they spot him, he boldly comes to them. Confident in his sex appeal, he audaciously invites Vicky and Cristina to, that night, fly over to his Oviedo home for a weekend of sight seeing, wine drinking, and lovemaking. Vicky is taken aback, dramatically turning him down as if he were the most repulsive creature on the planet. Cristina, on the other hand, is spellbound, and takes his offer. Somehow, she drags Vicky along for the ride too, who seems to only accept the idea as a way to ensure that Juan Antonio doesn’t hurt her head-scratchingly spontaneous friend. He could be a killer for all they know.
But the weekend turns out to be summer-changing, at least for Vicky. Upon arrival, Cristina is stricken with a particularly bad case of food poisoning, and remains bedridden as the hours pass by. At first, Vicky is terrified by the thought of having to spend the next two days with Juan Antonio. But, to her surprise, he turns out to be a charismatic companion, one so charismatic, in fact, that, by Sunday (when they’ve done more than just see the sights and drink wine), she finds herself doubting the success of her current engagement.
The three fly back to Barcelona, where things begin to shift dramatically. Vicky keeps her feelings for Juan Antonio a secret, diving deep into her studies, while Cristina, recovered from her brief illness, gives romancing the painter another try and succeeds. The pot is stirred, though, when Doug shows up in Spain, ready to get married, and when María Elena (an incendiary Penélope Cruz), Juan Antonio’s moody ex-wife, comes crashing into the middle of his and Cristina’s relationship just as it starts to flower.
And from there, Vicky Cristina Barcelona really begins to blossom and really begins to remind us why Allen’s knack for writing and knack for characters is something bafflingly ageless. The separation of Vicky and Cristina is the very thing that prompts for the film’s effulgent way of kicking off of the Finding Yourself trope, which Allen portrays at once teasingly and seriously. Teasing in how Cristina does so by living with María Elena and Juan Antonio and nurturing her interests in photography and sex, seriously in how Vicky frets about potentially leaving Doug for Juan Antonio, with us (and maybe even her) well aware that she’ll be stuck in middling married life unless she makes a change (that we know she won’t).
It’s the symmetry between rompiness and pessimism that provides Vicky Cristina Barcelona with its attractive glow: it all looks and sounds incredible, its actors and scenery as gorgeous as Allen’s dialogue. But because there’s an underlying sense of reality beneath its porcelain beauty, it makes for savory popcorn entertainment incapable of getting lifted away into the throes of forgettability.
I could take on the role of other critics and compare it to Allen’s other works and figure it to be light as an eclair and therefore insubstantial in contrast to his many moments of genius. But why do so when presented with a film so utterly delightful, one that serves as a reminder that Allen could have easily gone into retirement at his age but still manages to amuse us time and time again? I’m sure I’ve seen Vicky Cristina Barcelona six times within the past four years, and its ability to seduce hasn’t wrinkled. That’s Allen for you. A