Woody Allen’s European movies have always seemed a bit stiff to me. Matchpoint seems ill-at-ease, desperately calling for the customary New York setting to make sense (and actors comfortable with Allen’ s hallmark machine-gun dialogue delivery); Scarlett Johannsen’s lost-in-England American girl feels a bit more spontaneous in Scoop, but it is probably because Allen is himself on screen to set the pace to a charming if formulaic movie; and Cassandra’ s Dream has to be Allen’s most representative attempt in Europeness – there is no American character on the plot and America itself only appears as Ewan McGregor’s character’ s pipedream. It is also artifficially dry and slow and finally unconvincing.
Vicky Christina Barcelona, on the other hand, is an unforced acknowledgement of Allen’ s failure to be European. Here we have two American girls, Scarlett Johannsen and Rebecca Hall (an English actress born to an American mother, mezzo-soprano Maria Ewing) in Spain. Vicky (Hall) is about to marry her all-American Mr. Right and goes to Barcelona to prepare her thesis on Catalan culture, while Christina (Johannsen) is sick of WASP-land and looking for something that clicks her artistic vein. There they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), who finally show them that expatriate life never makes you a local, but rather puts your foreignness in perspective.
This is probably Allen’s best movie in a while – the Spanish setting is attractive but not self-indulgent, the soundtrack does create the necessary atmosphere and both Bardem nd Cruz ooze charisma and flair, contagiating Johannsen into producing her best piece of acting to the date. Here she eschews tha usual purring petty-seduction for real and powerful sex-appeal. One could imagine that Rebecca Hall could be overshadowed in the context, but not only does she survive the competition but aso brings a special kind of concentration and handles Allen’s verbose dialogues to perfection.
If you are dying to see a new “classic” by Woody Allen, this is probably not your movie – but it is certainly worth while the detour.