MOVIE REVIEW- He's back: Woody Allen hits a homer at last

a still from this week's filmWhen Woody Allen's at the top of his game no one is better. His batting average isn't what it was in the ‘70s and ‘80s but at 72 he keeps turning out a film a year, and hitting an occasional home run like Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Steve WarrenWhat's most remarkable is the way Allen keeps growing and adapting. He's only recently left his comfort zone of New York Jewry to study European cultures, and he's continually refining and updating his technique while retaining the economic storytelling style epitomized by the new film's title. It's not one woman's name, but a shorthand version of "Vicky and Cristina Spend a Summer in Barcelona," which sounds too much like the third Harold & Kumar film.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are best friends with personalities as opposite as their hair color. Blonde Cristina is a free spirit with no idea what she wants to do with her life, other than enjoy it and have adventures. Brunette Vicky opts for security. She's engaged to Doug (Chris Messina), who is steady, reliable, upwardly mobile– in a word, boring; in eight words, the guy your mother wants you to marry.

From an audience standpoint, I'd guess about 90 percent of us are Vickys who secretly long to be Cristinas.

A relative of Vicky's, Judy (Patricia Clarkson) offers to put the two up for the summer in the Barcelona house she shares with her husband, Mark (Kevin Dunn). They soon meet an artist, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who invites the young women to fly with him to Oviedo for the weekend, being honest about wanting to have sex with both of them.

Vicky says no, Cristina says yes, and the ayes have it. The weekend doesn't turn out the way anyone expects, but back in Barcelona the natural order is restored. Soon Cristina moves in with Juan Antonio, who is obviously still hung up on the ex-wife who stabbed him on the way out of his life.

The movie appears to be moving along at a pretty good clip, but right at the midpoint it goes into hyperdrive with the arrival of Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), Juan Antonio's ex. She drives everyone crazy before the household settles into a ménage à trois of sorts.

In the meantime, Vicky is concealing her own feelings for the artist and as her wedding approaches, watching Judy and Mark makes her question whether that's who she wants to be in 25 years.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona would have worked as a drama or as the kind of laugh-a-minute yukfest Allen used to make. Instead it's somewhere between, with enough humor that you can relax and enjoy it without feeling challenged, yet with enough insight into relationships and the human condition for a master's thesis.

Cruz is the standout in an outstanding cast, deserving of a supporting actress nomination for taking a clichéd spitfire role and boldly going where no woman has gone before. Bardem is sexier than he's been in a decade, while Johansson and Hall couldn't be better matched as the mismatched friends. I couldn't help dwelling on Hall's resemblance to Frances McDormand, but that's my problem.

Another problem I had was with the narrator, Christopher Evan Welch, who repeatedly mispronounces "Catalan," unlike most of the visible cast members.

Rumors of lesbian action have been greatly exaggerated. There's one hot but brief kiss between Cruz and Johansson, which Woody may have included for his own amusement, but it works; and when Bardem inevitably joins the ladies, their little dance recalls the one in Cabaret and fades out just as fast.

There's time for enough sightseeing that if you don't know who Antonio Gaudi was you'll be familiar with his style by the end of the movie. You're probably already familiar with Woody Allen's style but this is a chance to see it at its best.



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