Each review of a new, annual Woody Allen film needn’t require an overarching, state-of-his-art introduction, but it’s hard to fight the urge to do so. The fact that, even at this late stage in his career, America’s most prolific just-off-mainstream filmmaker instigates such charged responses from so many viewers—whether a bemused, wistful smile or a fly-swatting “feh”—goes a long way in proving that there’s still vitality here, even if it often exists in the debates around his work more than in the worlds of the films themselves. Antiquated though Allen’s brand of verbose, narcissistic city-dwellers may now be (even at wishfully young ages in such films as Anything Else, Melinda and Melinda, and now Vicky Cristina Barcelona), there will always be a core of truth to their self-aware bourgeois bitterness.
The director almost pathologically “writes about what he knows,” even when he shifts to social-climbing murders set against fine European linens (he certainly “knows” Chabrol) or, in his new film, romances with fiery foreigners in sun-dappled Spanish settings (Woody certainly “knows” expensive vacations), but Allen also knows himself—his limitations, his passions, the self-made boundaries of his own hermetic Manhattan-of-the-Mind. Whether this knowledge precludes or enhances our emotional involvement with his characters depends on our own cultural and emotional baggage; whether Allen successfully pulls one out this year or the next seems contingent on how much of his heart he put into any given film’s construction.
And maybe it was the Gaudi architecture or the restorative Mediterranean breeze, but on a very basic level, Vicky Cristina Barcelona works, flowing along even and steady, and infectiously fascinated by its principals (and its principles, as any Allen film worth its weight in moral dilemmas must be). The central love affair, between unmoored post-collegiate Cristina (played by Allen’s daughter-muse Scarlett Johansson — get over it, it’s not that creepy) and mysterious painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), needs to be equal parts foreboding and frivolous, without tipping too far into either, and Allen is up to the challenge. He even complicates matters with several effective monkey wrenches: Rebecca Hall’s Vicky, for instance, Cristina’s friend and tour buddy, whose pursuit of a master’s degree in “Catalan identity” has brought them here in the first place, and whose initial repelling of Juan Antonio’s double-the-pleasure come on to the girls (“Come with me to Oviedo. We will leave in one hour.”) gives the film its pragmatic grounding and Cristina all the fuel she needs to initiate a rendezvous.