All but the truest Woody Allen fanatics are invited to be skeptical of the premise behind Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a premise shared by many a soft core porn. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), beautiful young best friends with vastly different views on life, become experienced in love thanks to the guiding, sexy presence of painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who invites them into a three-way before they've even told him their names. Skeptics may want to walk out of the theater, convinced they've been roped into the fantasy of a 72-year-old man who simply gathered the hottest people in the world and asked them to make out.
But hang in there. The most surprising thing about Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not its drop-dead gorgeous locations, steamy (but modest) sex scenes or handful of stellar performances, but the fact that Allen pulls it off. It may start as a cliched idea of a romantic summer in Europe, but it turns into something deliciously funny and melancholy, with a clear-eyed view of its own role as fantasy and wish fulfillment, as much for the audience as its old and randy director.
Allen has always specialized in fantasies, of course, even though his legions of rich Upper East Siders had more neuroses than you'd find in the average daydream. And his Barcelona isn't all that different from Park Avenue, populated entirely by the moneyed class who think nothing of a last-minute trans-Atlantic flight, or an entire summer spent lounging in a foreign city. Vicky and Cristina arrive in Barcelona to stay with Vicky's distant relatives, Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and Mark (Kevin Dunn), who live in a comfortable villa in the city's center. It's only a few well-connected parties before Vicky and Cristina encounter Juan Antonio, and when he proposes a weekend trip to Oviedo, the differences between the two girls become clear. Vicky, engaged to a stuffed-shirt Wall Streeter (Chris Messina) back home, sees straight through this Don Juan. But Cristina, aimless and coasting on her good looks, goes for it, and before long all three are sighteseeing in yet another gorgeous town.
Cristina's dalliance with Juan Antonio is delayed by a nasty case of food poisoning, and Vicky is surprised to find herself in his bed instead. She's racked with guilt upon returning to Barcelona, and impulsively agrees to marry her fiance when makes a surprise visit. Cristina, on the other hand, has her way with the painter eventually, and soon finds herself watching Juan Antonio paint in his verdant backyard and sharing his rambling countryside home. Vicky is stuck in Barcelona, having endless dinners with bourgeois fellow New Yorkers, wickedly captured in all their stultifying good taste.
The story could have gotten boring from there, a tired lesson about taking risks and following your ambition, but instead Penelope Cruz arrives as Juan Antonio's suicidal, maniac ex-wife Maria Elena. Jealous of Cristina and refusing to speak English for her benefit, Cruz is hysterical and wild-eyed, and her scenes with Bardem crackle. How could anyone worship Johansson as a sex-symbol, you think, when Penelope Cruz is on this earth? Eventually the three settle into a comfortable menage-a-trois-- yes, there a few brief makeouts-- but sexual happiness can't last long in Allen's universe. Plus there's Vicky, loyal to her friend but increasingly curious about what could have been with her Spanish lothario.
The film's biggest misstep is the periodic use of a narrator, who introduces the girls in a way that puts their characters in boxes-- the prim smart one, the sexy wild one. Hall makes Vicky work by exploring her dual desires for order and freedom, but Johansson never takes Cristina beyond a generic free spirit. Luckily most of her scenes are with Bardem and Cruz, who run away with the movie with their sexy, snappy rapport. Maybe it's the foreign languages or colorful locations, but Allen seems to have regained his ability to make exasperating characters appealing, and make an outright fantasy seem achievable. If you're inspired to take a trip to Barcelona after this movie, get a ticket for me too.