“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” — From Spain with Love — 4 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” a romantic tale with a pungent twist, is the sort of film that reminds you why it was you fell in love with going to the movies in the first place. Lampooning genre clichés nonetheless dear to him, the master craftsman reworks great old mechanisms with renewed wonder, authority and lyricism.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s still got it. All the same, it’s delightful when a veteran hurler waits until the eighth inning to show us a new and completely unexpected pitch. Having used several permutations of the same template in his last dozen outings, the change-up now catches us looking. As with all greatness, the delivery seems effortless.

Relating the tale of a summer holiday in Spain taken by best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), it is doubtlessly a labor of love, pun fully intended. Stunningly smooth, it evokes his literary penchant.

Sure, the movies are his medium. Given his talent, era and the financial sense it makes, film was the obvious choice. But whenever Mr. Allen scales a note as high as he does in this one, we speculate the bard, philosopher or novelist he’d have been in an earlier period.

Few do the human heart better, and it rarely beats with more demand for satisfaction and understanding than is depicted here. Exploring a labyrinth of emotion, obvious and subconscious, he herds and then fine tunes the hormones, tears and rationalizations that go into the rummage for love. This makes for quite a comedy…in the full classical sense.

That is, no one gets a free pass. While full bodied characters in their own right, each player is also representative of a love ideal broken up into two basic camps: those who believe it can—nay, must—be achieved without pain or threat, and those who deem there can be no truly earth-moving passion without attendant torment.

Rebecca Hall’s Vicky, a student of Catalan culture engaged to boring, predictable but successful and loving Doug (Chris Messina), firmly subscribes to the former. Whereas Cristina, splendidly etched by Scarlett Johansson, suspects, by gum, it’s the latter for her. Vicky routinely scoffs when Cristina suggests the excitement of going out on love’s limb.

Both are in for an education. And it’s quite a faculty that’ll be teaching the lessons. First to man the lectern, running a seminar on the proverbial but not typical triangle, is the fabulous Javier Bardem (“No Country for Old Men”) as Juan Antonio. A Latin lover, circa 2008, he gives the story its initial catapult when he propositions the pair in a bar.

Fly away with me, beseeches the artist/amateur pilot…not to the Kasbah, but to the picturesque town of Oviedo. There, he informs, will be the best wine, the finest cheese, and a bed to share…for all three. Vicky is aghast. Cristina is intrigued. The plot is set in motion. It’s a dilly, exquisitely supported by informing subtexts and characterizations.

As layers peel and the portrayals increase dimensionally, Juan Antonio shares his take on life. He was married— to a fellow artist. It was a big love, but painful…anguish being the price for such delirious passion. What’s more, Maria Elena, played with a nomination-worthy fire by Penelope Cruz, was dangerous. She tried to kill him.

Or, was it the other way around? In any case, both Vicky and Cristina are soon embroiled in the tempestuousness that Juan Antonio has heretofore sworn off as unworkable, even by his liberal standards. The triangle becomes a quadrangle. Finely carved counterpoints are witty, sad and informing.

Vicky and Cristina’s American hostess in Spain, the quietly desperate Judy (Patricia Clarkson), cheers her guests to take emotional chances. She allows that while she loves husband Mark (Kevin Dunn), she is no longer, to coin a platitude, “in love.” Meanwhile, in an example of intuitive timing, Cristina’s fiancée calls from New York.

The nice dullard has an idea. Why not get married in Spain…right away? Oh sure, they’ll still have their big wedding back in the good old U.S. of A. this fall. But for now, all “their” friends think this would be “really, really cool.” Yipes. Oh, well. There’s the rub, dear reader: the powers of convention, the rigors of civilization, left brain vs. right.

It’s one of many philosophical conundrums the auteur dissects in his intelligent parable of love, offering not answers, but some swell artistic commiseration. Impressive acting and a flamenco guitar analogous to the zither in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” (1949) leave the stellar “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” wanting only for a more expressive title.

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” rated PG-13, is a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release directed by Woody Allen and stars Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson and Javier Bardem. Running time: 96 minutes

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