If you read the Scott Tobias's interview with Woody Allen, you'll find out that Vicky Cristina Barcelona was basically a situation where the financing came in search of a project. He was asked if he would make a movie in Barcelona if someone else picked up the freight, and he said "sure." To fit the bill, he confected a fairly simple story of two American twentysomethings on holiday in an exotic European city. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is the uptight one, who craves stability and is set to marry a dullish but moneyed man; Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is the artistic one, who's a little more adventurous, but is never happy with her creations or her relationships. We know all this a few minutes in because an omniscient narrator tells us, which is a bit of a problem with the movie. We're sometimes told things we could easily have been shown, or worse, told things, then have those same things explained through dialog by the characters on screen, then--in addition--the same things are shown to us in flashback.
Vicky and Cristina meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a painter whose explosive relationship with his ex-wife made waves in the Barcelona art scene years before. Bardem, who starts off playing a stock role of the tall dark stranger who challenges the Americans to live life to the fullest, reminds us that before he stole Pete Rose's haircut to play death incarnate in No Country for Old Men, he was considered more sexy than scary. In their first meeting, he propositions both Vicky and Cristina, simultaneously, to go away with him for a romantic getaway. He delivers his lines of seduction in such a way that even as we're rolling our eyes at the corniness, we understand why a girl would go with him.
Even with Bardem's considerable talents, the story to this point is pretty rote, and as the focus falls more on Cristina than Vicky, you might find yourself checking your watch. But then Penelope Cruz shows up as Juan Antonio's ex, Maria Elena, and saves Woody's movie. Cruz doesn't just give the best female performance I've seen all year, but Maria Elena may be the most interesting female character in any Woody Allen movie. She sweeps through her scenes, all rage and manic energy, buoyed by the twin qualities of being as mad as a hatter and of always being right. She's part muse, part oracle, part raving psychotic.
While not everything in the film rises to the level of Bardem and Cruz's strange relationship, the acting--with one exception--is extremely fine. Hall, who'd previously played Christian Bale's wife in The Prestige, is a discovery; she holds her own given the most Woody-like dialog, but also shows great ambiguity torn between exotic Barcelona and her not-so-exotic fiance (well played by Chris Messina). Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn are great in small roles as Vicky and Cristina's hosts in Spain. Um, who does that leave?
Oh. Johansson. She might be the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, but her acting is weak enough that it's even commented on in the movie itself. This is the second time Woody has cast Scarlett as a less-than-convincing actress--maybe this is a clue? She's not as wooden here as she was in Match Point, but limits of her skills, plus a role that could best be described as the "vaguely dissatisfied girl" make her stick out in an outstanding cast. Regardless, this film rates a pretty strong recommended.