For much of the last two decades, Woody Allen's movie-a-year output has seemed more force of habit than ongoing artistic pursuit, but there's a vibrant chemistry to Vicky Cristina Barcelona—in the writing, in the casting, in the great Catalan city itself—that instantly sets it apart from his recent work. Though he's managed a few pleasant diversions in that time, like Match Point or Sweet And Lowdown or Everyone Says I Love You, it's been easy to forget that Allen was once a keen and perceptive chronicler of the human heart and its mysterious, fickle desires. Shooting in Europe for the fourth time following Match Point, Scoop, and Cassandra's Dream, Allen seizes on the chance to weigh American notions of love against the continent's more libertine spirit. He comes away with a witty and ambiguous movie that's simultaneously intoxicating and suffused with sadness and doubt.
Two American friends vacationing in Barcelona for the summer, Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall have extremely different ideas of what they're looking for in a relationship. Hall values stability and devotion, and is engaged to marry a wealthy young man (Chris Messina) who will undoubtedly provide her with just that. Johansson, on the other hand, is a romantic adventurer who craves the sort of passion that tends to flame out as quickly as it ignites. When a painter, played by Javier Bardem, makes the startling proposal that both women join him on a trip to the town of Oviedo, his impulsiveness excites Johansson and repels Hall, but they take him up on his offer anyway. The plot thickens later when Bardem's tempestuous ex-wife Penélope Cruz enters the equation and forces a complicated living situation with he and Johansson.
Though it's tempting to dismiss Vicky Cristina Barcelona as an indulgent male fantasy, with Bardem controlling the fates and libidos of three beautiful women, Allen clouds the situation with a persistent romantic pessimism. (It also helps that Bardem has enough charisma to convince anyone to sleep with him. With another actor in the role—Allen, say—the movie would be a disaster.) As much as Allen disdains the smothering confines of a stable, boring marriage, he also casts skepticism on the volatile, bohemian threesome between Johansson, Bardem, and Cruz. But through it all, Vicky Cristina Barcelona remains unaccountably romantic, a confirmation that love, elusive and painful as it can be, is still worth pursuing.