From the way most American films perceive Southwestern Europeans, one might think that the Old World has graduated past employment. All its inhabitants are retirees with nothing better to do than paint, write poetry, and—mais oui!—make dirty, dirty, sexy love. This atmosphere of leisure is about the opposite of the low-pressure system that perpetually hovers around director Woody Allen’s Big Apple-centric head. So, when he drops his American surrogates off in Spain for their summer abroad in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, we know they won’t be staying there past fall.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall), the narrator too plainly tells us, is a lover of order and orderly lovers. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), on the other hand, is the soul-searching bohemian, the fatalist. Allen’s schematic vision is clear: Both girls will fall for the same hunky Spaniard (Javier Bardem), and both will have their concepts of love challenged. Allen, going on 73, has made a movie about young lovers taking advantage of their age, and one can clearly see that he’s living vicariously through his heroines’ dalliances. But this isn’t a dirty-old-man picture; it’s one of few Woody Allen movies that seem unlabored. His vicariousness has given his hoary art a whiff of youthful wanderlust. But not totally.
Fans of the director have come to expect his overwriting, which is, of course, a function of his chronic apprehension. In his comedies, it can be a blessing, and in his dramas, a curse. (As he’s aged, it’s begun to blight his comedies, too.) In classics like Annie Hall, his total disclosure is part of the joke, whereas in something like Match Point, his over-delineation is a whapping of “Did you get it? I’m an artist, and this is what I’m saying…” This current film is really neither comedy nor drama: it’s a droopy daydream—a romance novel jazzed up with semi-ersatz questions about the ontology of love. But, although that might seem like a damning evaluation, the picture’s utter disconnection from reality (Vicky’s getting her master’s in Catalan culture!) makes its intellectualized reverie seem somehow grounded. The dialogue, despite its absence of “unimportance”—i.e., any references to popular culture or contemporary society—is, at least, colloquial; and though the voice-over narration often serves as a sort of Venn diagram for Allen’s themes, it evokes a storybook atmosphere, and keeps the viewer from working too hard. Who’d want to when the weather’s so nice and the people are so lovely…?
And the cast really is lovely. Allen makes Hall his avatar. She shares her surname with his most famous heroine, and her strikingly fragile features with Mia Farrow, but her initial prudishness around Bardem’s blunt Don Juan Antonio is pure Allen—and a trifle emetic. She’s soft as butter, though, when her schemas about love start to collapse, and it’s a pleasure to watch her melt. Johansson cleverly underplays her character’s restive ennui, but has a quiet slyness about her when she discusses—but really brags about—her unorthodox sexual practices with Juan Antonio, and his trigger-happy ex, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz).