Woody Allen pretty much makes a movie a year, whether he has any inspiration or not. While far from a masterpiece, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is better than such recent films as "Cassandra's Dream" and "Scoop," and it has the advantage of being set in sun-burnished Spain – a new locale for the Woodman.
Best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are spending the summer in Barcelona, which Allen presents as a landscape of erotic desire. When a dashing painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) approaches the ladies in a restaurant and proposes they fly with him to a provincial town for a weekend of wine and sightseeing and love, the level-headed Vicky, who is engaged to a stuffed shirt back in New York, demurs. But impulsive Cristina's eyes light up.
What follows is a roundelay of desire with Juan Antonio as its whirling center. And there's a fourth player – Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio's artist ex-wife, with whom he shared a relationship so tempestuous that she once tried to kill him. Or maybe it's the other way around – we never really find out.
Allen makes fun of the hot-blooded Latin stereotype but he's also celebrating it. Like the two women, he's on a kind of erotic vacation here, and his palette has a dreaminess, a sensuality, missing from his other films. Bardem and Cruz, personifications of eroticism, are ideally cast. Johansson never quite seems to be fully awake in her movies but here that works to her advantage. Hall, the daughter of famed British director Peter Hall, is one of the most talented newcomers in movies. (She was the best thing about "The Prestige" and "Starter for 10.")
With all this going for it, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" should be better than it is. But there's something intriguing going on here. It's a movie about the sacrifices that people make to be happy. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexuality, and smoking.)