Woody Allen is channeling Pedro Almodovar in his latest film Vicky Cristina Barcelona, not only because it is set in Spain and featuring some great Spanish actors, but because while some of his characters are classic Woody Allen neurotic New Yorkers (like the expatriates Judy and Mark), while others (like the fiery Spanish painter Maria Elena) could have walked right out of an Almodovar film. (I mean that figuratively, of course, not literally in the Purple Rose of Cairo sense.) And what better way to animate this amusing exploration of the relationship between life and artists, or more pointedly, the relationships between artists and the people who are romantically drawn to the idea of being an artist, or making love to one, or at least being the sort of person who could. Thankfully, Allen's channeling Almodovar includes making his characters spend more time actually engaged in romantic relationships versus talking about them, endlessly analyzing themselves out loud (though there's some amount of that too). It's so much more fun to watch his characters interact. The title protagonists are Vicky, a conventional girl who knows what she wants (or so she thinks), and Cristina, a hipster artistic wannabe who knows only what she doesn't want. Rebecca Hall brings Vicky to life, with her confident conventional path undermined by an undertow of artistic longings belied by her totally impractical major in Catalan Identity. Scarlet Johansson is perfectly cast as the restless artistic soul struggling to find her art and her ideal relationship, impatiently bored with everything conventional. Javier Bardem is outstanding as Juan Antonio, the paradigmatic artist, who seeks beauty and follows his impulses unapologetically in all aspects of his life. And Penelope Cruz is a pistol as Maria Elena, the artist's tempestuous ex-wife who is in and out of his life. Patricia Clarkson does a fine job as Judy, the wife of the expatriate couple, who has some secrets of her own. Barcelona also plays a beautiful role in this film, not in wide-eyed tourist shots (except for a few video "postcards" establishing Vicky and Cristina as tourists) but in intimate backgrounds (in the same style Woody Allen once used intimate but adoring scenes in Manhattan). And who couldn't fall in love in Barcelona?
There are other men in this film, but they're not in focus. Aside from the artist (and his father, who has a small role), the other men are just vague foils. At one point, Cristina is complaining about all of the cardboard cut-out conventional men who bore her, and Vicky bristles "so you think Doug [her fiance] is a cardboard cut-out?". But of course it turns out that Doug is a cardboard cut-out. While he seems like the conventional ideal of a husband -- handsome, very successful, communicative, solicitous -- Allen does a brilliant job of making us see him as Cristina does and as Vicky comes to. Ironically, the same skewering gaze that Allen turned on Californians in his Annie Hall days, here he turns on New York City bourgeoisie. (I would have said Manhattanites, but the cool rich young New Yorkers are moving to Brooklyn.) Doug works for some generically named firm (Global Enterprises? something like that), and whenever he talks with Mark or the other New Yorkers they run into, Allen makes us perceive them the way Charlie Brown perceives his teachers. In contrast, the vibrant characters of the artists approach life and love with unconventional impetuousness and immediacy, and yet ultimately, they are the ones who look the most sensible and level-headed about things. At least when she's not trying to kill him. ("That." says Maria Elena dismissively.) Yet even they know their relationship doesn't work. There's just something missing, as Maria Elena says, that perfect tint that when added to the picture transforms everything. Fortunately, Woody Allen seems to have found that perfect transformative tint for his heady study of conventional versus artistic views of love by setting it as a delightful comedy of summer love in that most romantic city of Barcelona. And unlike Juan Antonio's father, who writes exquisite poetry but never publishes it to punish the world for not having figured out how to love, Woody Allen has shared with us his amusing musings on the same complaint.