THE ADVANCE BUZZ on Woody Allen's latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, was that it featured a hot lesbian sex scene between Scarlett Johansson and Penélope Cruz. The gossipers should have known better: Woody Allen movies are seldom about sex. Relationships, yes. Art and philosophy, certainly. But erotic heat is just not his thing.
Woody Allen movies have been greeted in recent years without much enthusiasm. Maybe some people still haven't forgiven his "heart wants what it wants" justification for marrying his former girlfriend's daughter (now 38 and mother of their two children). Others may be disappointed that his films are so much smaller in scope than his early, ambitious works. His late career resembles that of Rossini, who retired from composing grand operas to write smaller, more intimate pieces. This one we might call "Serenade to a City in Spain."
The movie finds Allen in a lighter mood than in last year's tense British murder drama Cassandra's Dream. The story, with narration by actor Christopher Evan Welch instead of Allen's familiar voice, tells of two friends: dark-haired, sensible Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and blond, impulsive Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who share a summer vacation - and a lover - in Barcelona.
Vicky is a graduate student whose interest in art and architecture gives Allen the opportunity to drop names like Gaud’ and Mir— into the script. She is engaged to ambitious, reliable Doug (Chris Messina). Cristina, restless and vaguely artistic, is trying to get over a painful breakup. They stay with Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and Mark (Kevin Dunn), the kind of smart, successful couple who are a staple of Woody Allen films.
At an art gallery opening (another Allen staple), Vicky and Cristina spot Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a handsome painter who recently ended a violent marriage. At a restaurant, Juan Antonio approaches the pair and suggests they join him on a weekend trip to Oviedo, where his plans include admiring the city's pre-Romanesque architecture and making love - "hopefully, the three of us." Vicky is justifiably skeptical, but Cristina accepts, and Vicky reluctantly agrees to go along.
When Juan Antonio's seduction of Cristina goes awry, he and Vicky enjoy the old city together and, one night, make passionate love. After their return to Barcelona, Juan Antonio, to Vicky's disappointment, takes up with Cristina, who moves in with him. Vicky resigns herself to marrying Doug, who seems, by contrast, hopelessly dull.
Cristina and Juan Antonio's romantic idyll is interrupted when he is forced to rescue his suicidal ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz). Juan Antonio moves his fiery ex into the house, and after some initial mistrust, the three fall into a comfortable ménage. Maria Elena, a painter even more talented than her ex-husband, helps Cristina develop her photography skills. The ex-spouses - a couple seemingly modeled on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera - decide that Cristina is the "missing ingredient" in their troubled relationship. Later, Judy, who is herself unhappily married, tries to help Vicky reignite the flame with Juan Antonio. The result is an absurd twist of fate characteristic of a Woody Allen short story.
It's a mere wisp of a movie, but the clever, talky script and fine cast make it go down like a cool glass of limonada. Lissome English actress Rebecca Hall is a credibly American Vicky, and Cruz is ravishing and funny as the temperamental Maria Elena. Bardem, with his soft brown eyes, has guileless appeal in a role that happily doesn't require a Monkees haircut and bolt gun. I remain baffled, however, over Allen's continued allegiance to Johansson, whose reciting of his artistic-intellectual dialogue about such things as Scriabin piano sonatas brings to mind a toddler scuffling about in Mommy's heels. Perhaps the explanation lies in Juan Antonio's seductive praise of Cristina: "You have very beautiful lips."