Two New York girlfriends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), take a summer holiday in Barcelona on the eve of Vicky's wedding to business executive Doug (Chris Messina). At a bistro one night, a flamboyant local artist, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) invites them on a weekend of hedonistic fun a short flight away – in a small borrowed plane he flies himself. Vicky's reserve is overcome by Cristina's daring and a fabulous weekend is had. But something changes for them all and the situation is further complicated by the return – under dramatic circumstances – of Juan Antonio's ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) with whom he has a tempestuous relationship.
Like being stuck with travel partners who seem intent on spoiling the wonders of your Continental holiday, director Woody Allen’s love letter to Spain posits the viewer in one of the most romantic countries on the planet then makes us endure the tribulations of three insufferable characters – and one of those is the voice-over guy!
Scarlett Johanssen is Cristina, a thinly-sketched pseudo-artist whose main reason for being seems to be to experience life sans responsibility; Rebecca Hall is Vicky, her unlikely best friend, a tightly-wound soon-to-wed who thinks she wants a New York-lifestyle with her fiancé (Chris Messina) until a drunken shag with a smooth-talking Spaniard leads to corrosive doubt. As the said Spaniard, Javier Bardem is the mumbling, monosyllabic wedge that drives apart the girls' friendship and unleashes upon the film a force of nature called Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) – his ex-wife and an altogether unstable personality.
Writer-director Allen’s first mistake is his use of an overly-enthusiastic voiceover. As the disembodied narrator, Christopher Evan Welch tones his oratory (perhaps deliberately) as if presenting a travelogue 16mm tourist film from the 1960’s. Allen’s visuals capture the sultriness of Barcelona, the beauty of Seville and the small-town charm of Oviedo, playing into the dreamlike fantasy, but the film seems more focussed on colourful content within the frame than on the realism of the characters.
Johanssen is fine as the suitably shallow, restless American twenty-something, not particularly concerned where her life takes her as long as it’s exciting; the less seen of Hall the better – her transition from uptight, upstate New York princess to lustful, possessive cast-off is fake and grating. As the painter who woos, screws and eschews the ladies, Bardem smoulders and speaks in clichéd-Spanish artist phrases ("Your eyes, what colour are they"; "Your friend, is she always so...what’s the word...analytical") but never engages.
But then there’s Penelope Cruz, in her Oscar-winning supporting role that truly supports the entire film. When the intoxicating mix of stuttering English and impassioned Spanish darts past her lips, you soon realise just how mannered and unconvincing her cast mates are in their interpretation of Allen’s script. From the moment she walks on screen, Cruz is a tightly-wound spring of feisty, sensual, unpredictable energy, and the movie spins and sings on her every word. All the actors, even the accomplished Bardem, who has worked with Cruz previously and to stunning effect (El amor perjudica seriamente la salud /Love Can Seriously Damage Your Health, 1996 and the career-launching Jamon Jamon, 1992), can’t hold a candle to her performance.
Unfortunately, Allen lets his star recruit down. Vicky Christina Barcelona is a film full of posturing poseurs, conceits designed to spread Allen’s message (Americans are uptight compared to Spaniards, American artistry pales against European culture, love can only be found where you true self emerges – whatever). The film makes you want to visit Spain – the pull of its history, culture, beauty is tangible in the film – but American tourists will probably make the experience a let down.