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Vicky Cristina Barcelona

In some ways it would have been more accurate to call the film Cristina Juan Maria Barcelona because that creates the most interesting quartet in the film. But Vicky Cristina Barcelona conveys the connection of the two American women abroad in a foreign city. The two women provide a physical and emotional contrast. Vicky (Rebecca Hall of The Prestige) is a tall, thin brunette with a very practical nature. In contrast, Cristina (Scarlett Johansson, also from The Prestige and making her third film with Woody) is a sensual blonde with a flirtatious romantic attitude. So when Cristina spies the sexy artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) at a party, she's immediately intrigued. Against Vicky's better judgment the three head off together and become romantically entangled. Adding to the complications is Maria (Penelope Cruz), Juan's slightly psychotic ex-wife.

Writer-director Woody Allen with Javier Bardem. Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson on the set of Vicky Cristina Barcelona (The Weinstein Co.)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona returns Allen to lighter material than his recent weighty emotional drama Cassandra's Dream. It's still not Woody at his best but it's refreshing diversion. It's like a wistful valentine to romantic passions and people who just can't seem to find satisfaction in their relationships. Romantic love is not really Allen's strong point, he's much better with neurotic love. And there are awkward moments here, especially involving the sexual attraction between Cristina and Maria that plays out very stiffly. Allen's decision to have a male narrator commenting objectively on the story in a very literary manner seems to reflect Allen's own distance from his subject matter. The narrator is much like the ones in Personal Velocity and Little Children ; all of these function in a way that very self-consciously pulls you out of the story so that you maintain a certain distance and don't get caught up in the passions of the characters on screen. In Allen's case, it may not be embraced by filmgoers but it seems to be his way of acknowledging that he's a bit of an outsider in this story.

Sexy, sultry, and supremely funny, Penelope Cruz stars as Maria in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (The Weinstein Co.)

Fortunately, Cruz invests Maria with such vibrant energy that we enjoy whatever her character does. Cruz, after suffering through some awful American movies, is finally getting to strut her stuff in English language films. Her work in Spain, especially for Pedro Almodovar, has always attested to her talent, but it hasn't been until recently that she's been well used in non-Spanish films. She's radiant, unpredictable, and over-the-top. Bardem, shedding his creepy mop-top from No Country for Old Men , gets to exude sexy charm as the very upfront and passionate Juan. Johansson and Hall offer a nice contrast but are overshadowed by their Spanish co-stars.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexuality, and smoking) offers up pleasant diversion, lovely Barcelona streets, and a quartet of attractive stars entangled in romantic passions. It's a tasty, beautifully presented confection without much substance.

Companion viewing: Annie Hall, The Prestige, No Country for Old Men, Volver &

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