The titular characters in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Woody Allen’s latest quasi-romantic quasi-comedy, represent much of what there is to love and fear in women while they navigate the gap between college and starting a family.
The brisk, plucky narration informs us upon the pair’s arrival for a summer of study and sightseeing in Spain that Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is the prim, sensible scholar, engaged to be married to a “decent and successful” somebody back in New York; while Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), a short-film actress and the type of dame men would call flaky if she weren’t a bombshell, expects love to be passionate, and expects that passion to require suffering.
You have dated both these women, been driven to fits of boredom by the former and to the brink of madness by the latter, and wondered why the two don’t just meet up, compromise, and become one person. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” toys with that fantasy and decides that mixing rarely means matching.
As the odd couple settle into their Mediterranean escape, the obligatory hot Spaniard appears. At an art show, Christina notices Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, thoroughly divorced from his turn as a skull-ventilating psychopath in “No Country for Old Men”).
The craggy, mysterious painter, whose fiery divorce had recently been in the papers, makes the women a blunt proposition: Come fly away for a weekend, see inspirational sculpture and make love to each other, todo tres, with no more justification than that he finds them beautiful and that “life is short; life is dull.”
Vicky protests that he’s a boor and that she’s engaged. Cristina twiddles her gold locks, eyes his form from her seat, and assures him that she, in contrast, is “currently at liberty.”
Rather than a whodunit, Allen sets up a who’lldoit that intensifies as Vicky sheds her prescribed prudishness and Juan Antonio reveals himself as more than a tomcat in comfortable shirts. Just as we’re ready to sign off on whatever fling Vicky may undertake, her beau (Chris Messina) outshines his rote yuppiehood to fly to Barcelona and tie the knot on an impulse. And as Cristina is finding herself in the bohemian freedom of Juan Antonio’s passion and art, his suicidal/homicidal/brilliant ex, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), returns to the picture.
Maria Elena maintains (as does Juan Antonio) that love is romantic only when it’s incomplete, and the film succeeds as a mostly earnest evaluation of that proposition. Vicky compares Cristina’s romanticism to having “a death wish”; Cristina admits that she only knows what she doesn’t want, not what she does. Each, in the end, takes a page from the other, but not to a crisp resolution. Playing Spanish verve to great effect against the materialism of his beloved Manhattan, Allen describes a vision of romance that requires his characters to dream — the alternative is slow death by banality — and yet doesn’t expect those dreams to ever come true.
The best hope is to live ever after, if not exactly happily. The final view might strain a committed relationship; this isn’t an uplifting picture for a Friday night with the ol’ ball and chain. The upshot, however, is that Allen has created the perfect date movie for friends with benefits.