Few filmmakers have led such peculiar careers as Woody Allen. What started out as a career made up of slapstick classics quickly gave way to dramas that could run in the middle of an Ingmar Bergman film series. Allen has continually meddled with both genres in his extremely vast filmography, and his newest feature, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is a comfortable combination of the two -- a light-hearted and jovial drama.
The film follows two young women, the titular Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), on an elongated vacation in Barcelona (making this the fourth feature filmed during Allen's sabbatical from hometown New York City). From the get-go, an omnipotent narrator makes clear that love and romance will be the primary topics of the film. Vicky, a recent Catalonian Studies graduate, who has never even visited the region while studying it, sees love as relatively practical: meet the guy, fall in love, live happily ever after. Cristina, an aspiring filmmaker, adopts a more whimsical philosophy; she's willing to let her heart break a few times in the process of finding Mr. Right. Both perspectives on love are further articulated when they meet tortured artist Juan (Javier Bardem), a hunk the stuff romance novels are made of.
Vicky, who has a fiancé waiting back home, initially flat-out refuses Juan's attempts at acquaintanceship. Creeped out by his sudden invitation to the girls to join him on his private jet across the country, she eventually agrees to accompany Cristina, who is at once interested and quickly fallen for the mysterious Spaniard. In fact, both women eventually fall for Juan, but what's most important to Allen is not which one will get with the boy, but how their reactions diverge. With their differing attitudes toward romance, Allen sits back and lets the journeys of the two women say what he wants about the subject matter.
Indeed, it's unclear whether or not Allen has his own defining opinion on what love is or how we should approach it. If anything, the film suggests that Allen doesn't see love as a formula that can simply be prescribed to the general public, but rather as a tricky work of matching one correct chemical with another in the hopes of achieving a perfect and often impossible balance of chemistry. Allen implies that this futile search for the perfect counter-balance is not only of our nature, but in our nature.
By setting the movie in Europe, Allen's characters get a "clean slate," so to speak; they're allowed to take chances and still appear believable. If the film had been shot in the confines of a New York borough, his approach would have seemed isolated and cultish, almost degenerative. Furthermore, his two European leads Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz (as Juan's psychotic ex) are fantastically open and free to any mode of expression. We've come to expect Bardem's talent to shine in all of his roles, but for Cruz, whose had only a handful of opportunities to shine in her career, this performance ranks easily among her best. Illogical but well-intentioned, her character is the most convincing of the film.
In the large scheme of things, Vicky Cristina Barcelona skews to just the side in Allen's large body of work. More than competent, it's a very good film, yet it doesn't reach the greatness that Allen has achieved before. And neither exclusively comedy or drama, it's an easy blend that comes out as a light, entertaining discussion on mankind's desire for romance. Even compared to breezy dramas like Annie Hall, this film feels light as a feather, one that could be easily consumed by the general audience. It might not be a high-point in Allen's storied career, but were it in any other filmmaker's filmography, it could be.