- The Washington Times - Friday, August 15, 2008

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a Woody Allen film, but you wouldn’t know it from the promotional materials.

Neither the television trailer nor the poster mentions that the movie was written and directed by one of America’s greatest living filmmakers, unless you strain your eyes to read the fine-print credits. The poster plays up the sultry good looks of the film’s stars, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, who all appear with eyes closed and lips open.

Make no mistake, though: This is still a Woody Allen film, and there’s even a Woody Allen stand-in, this time in the form of a female.

Vicky is a slightly uptight American grad student spending her last summer before getting married (to an even more uptight businessman type) in Barcelona, where she’s working on her master’s thesis. Rebecca Hall even portrays the character with some very Woody-like mannerisms.

She plays the straight man to her more adventurous friend, Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) who jumps at the chance to flee America and the latest in a long line of bad breakups.

The pair meet bad-boy Spanish painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) in a restaurant after a gallery show. He invites them on a weekend getaway, where he promises good food, good wine, good conversation and maybe something else. “We’ll make love,” he smoothly suggests. “Who will make love?” asks a taken-aback Vicky. “Hopefully, the three of us,” he responds.

It doesn’t quite work that out way, of course. This love triangle barely gets off the ground before another soon takes its place. It turns out that Juan Antonio still carries a torch for his ex, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz).

When the unstable woman tries to kill herself, her former lover feels responsible and moves her back into his home - which he’s sharing with Cristina. The Spanish stunner doesn’t take too kindly to the American tourist, and vice versa.

There are a lot of delightful surprises in “Vicky Cristina,” and I won’t spoil them by saying more than that about the plot. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is Miss Cruz. She has always been a more than serviceable actress, but here she really shines. Her chemistry with rumored off-screen love interest Mr. Bardem is palpable, and the pair, with a little help from Miss Johansson, burn up the screen.

“Vicky Cristina” is something of a departure for the director. It’s his fourth film shot in Europe but his first shot in Spain, and it shows. While his previous European productions were quality pieces of work, they didn’t feel especially European. “Vicky Cristina,” on the other hand, is filled with a Latin turbulence that only could have been inspired by the locale.

The romantic comedy is not the masterpiece that “Match Point” was, but it is one of Mr. Allen’s sexiest films yet. The foremost chronicler of New York intellectuals proves, at 72, that he has plenty of fresh ideas.

★★★

TITLE: “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”

RATING: PG-13 (Mature thematic material involving sexuality and smoking)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Woody Allen

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