While Woody Allen's more recent comedies have been fluffy, screwball antics, his older ones combine humor with thoughts and musings on life and love. Woody is back to deeper comedy with his latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In this film, what could have been a mere sex romp becomes an exploration of what it means to love, and to get what one wants.

Best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are vacationing together in Spain. Vicky is the more level-headed of the two: She is engaged to a nice, ordinary, somewhat dull man named Doug (Chris Messina) and is traveling in Spain to do research on Spanish culture. Cristina is an artist who just finished months making a 12-minute movie and feels like wandering. Vicky considers love as stability and security, while Cristina wants love to be filled with passion, drama and pain. The two ladies are staying in Barcelona with Vicky's friend Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and her husband Mark (Kevin Dunn). And Vicky and Cristina soon become enamored of the sights and sounds of Spain.

At an art gallery, both ladies notice handsome painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who Judy says had a passionate divorce. A short time later Juan Antonio meets the women and offers to take them with him for the weekend to see the sights, drink fine wine, and make love -- hopefully with both of them. Cristina is intrigued and smitten, Vicky is insulted and a little offended -- but they both go with him. And when a stomach ailment interferes with Juan Antonio and Cristina's getting together, he and Vicky wind up sharing a night of lovemaking.

The movie jumps forward a few weeks, when Doug has joined Vicky in Spain and Cristina is living with Juan Antonio. Only Vicky keeps weighing the stable but dull prospect of life with Doug with the reckless but wild time she had with Juan Antonio. Cristina, meanwhile, finds herself enjoying life with Juan Antonio and discovering a love of photography -- but faces new challenges when Juan Antonio's crazy and somewhat dangerous ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) not only shows up, but also moves in with Juan Antonio and Cristina!

In lesser hands Vicky Cristina Barcelona could have become a frivolous film about male fantasies. Woody Allen, writing and directing the movie, transforms it into two separate views of what happens when people wonder if getting what they want means having what they want. Rebecca Hall is a female version of the characters Woody Allen used to play in his movies -- someone clever, intellectual, and prone to overanalysis which sometimes leads to inaction -- and she makes Vicky a genuinely nice person who suddenly wonders if her desired life of predictability is all she really wants. Scarlett Johansson (a regular in Woody Allen's movies these days) plays Cristina as a modern bohemian, someone ready to fall into love and defy society, but who may not be able to handle all she receives. Javier Bardem is immensely charming and seductive -- but his character is also passionate about life and art and Spain, a gourmand of life rather than a libido-driven stud. Penelope Cruz is wonderful as the ex-wife who's alternately suspicious and accepting of Cristina, who loves and hates Juan Antonio, who is an artist herself -- and a true wild and tortured soul. Cruz and Bardem demonstrate consistently Juan Antonio's assertion that he and his ex-wife are "meant to be together and not meant to be together." And Woody Allen treats Spain as the ideal of romanticism, full of color, life, and the omnipresent strings of the played Spanish guitar.

I could have done without the narration, which often stated what would have been evident from the dialogue and the acting; and a subplot where Judy has a situation mirroring Vicky's crisis was a little heave-handed. Still, there are plenty of laughs and plenty of musings in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. It's good to see Woody Allen back in fine form.

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch

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