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Vicky Cristina Barcelona: The strain in Spain
Woody Allen's latest is less than captivating

Vicky Cristina Barcelona might have been a hot, sexy mess.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona might have been a hot, sexy mess.
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Yes, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the new Woody Allen film widely hyped for a threesome, although it's not the configuration advertised in the ungainly title. Vicky (Rebecca Hall, indefinable but intriguing) is the smart, sensible brunette, and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) the amorous, free-thinking blond. Together, they are American best friends summering in Barcelona and falling, at a staggered clip, for a sultry Spanish painter named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem).

It sounds like the setup for a hot, sexy mess - and it might have been had Allen scrapped Vicky and Cristina to focus on the scenic glories of Gaudi's Barcelona and the twin headspin of Bardem and Penelope Cruz, who plays Juan Antonio's brawling ex-wife, Maria Elena. But Allen's take is too toothless, too bemused with the ever-shifting dynamics among the four players - shifts that often seem unmotivated, despite the near-constant narration (delivered by Christopher Evan Welch) that plainly announces them.

That narration also carries the whiff of contempt for the American leads - although Cristina doesn't help herself when, tasked with the question of what she does for a living, she replies, "I'm currently at liberty." (A well-heeled, unaccountably moneyed woman aching for male approval and artistic credibility by flopping from bed to bed, hobby to hobby, philosophy to philosophy? Gosh, Woody - haven't seen that one before.) Muse or not, Johansson is done no favors here by Allen and, when sidled up to Cruz, who's only gotten harder, sexier, and more bedazzling as she ages, the jejune actress - sorry, ingénue - amounts to not much more than a blinding blond with a power pout.

The real problem - as ever, in Allen's later years - is the glass-house remove that dogs his writing. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is by no means a bad film, but it's irrefutable evidence that Allen has aged - or cloistered - himself into irrelevance. As non-native speakers, Bardem and Cruz - who have a corker of a scene in which they comfort each other, in Spanish, while being mutually dumped by the third leg of their ménage à trois - manage the formal, stilted-sounding language believably, but something is terribly amiss when the American actors sound like English is their second language.

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