Woody Allen has been called many things — nerd, comic genius, pervert, culture hero — but it’s become clear that he’s also the last living hippie. If he could, he’d take us all back to the garden. Early in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), comely American tourists who are spending the summer in Barcelona, are approached by Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a soft-voiced hunk of a Spanish artist who announces his desire to whisk them off for a weekend in which the three of them will eat, drink, feast on art, and make love. (Woody Allen movies are the last place in the Western world where people use the phrase make love. He should really think about retiring it.)
Vicky, the uptight one, is a budding Catalan scholar and feminista who’s about to marry a dull finance guy, and she’s offended by Juan Antonio’s offer. Cristina, on the other hand, is a free spirit, a budding artist (she’s trying her hand at photography), and she’s up for adventure; before the weekend is over, she’ll be firmly under Juan Antonio’s sexo-Euro-art spell. (But then, so will Vicky.) Other characters appear, like Vicky’s annoying ”It’s all good!” fiancé (Chris Messina) and Juan Antonio’s hot-blooded suicidal egomaniac of an ex-wife (played with terrific, truth-telling verve by Penélope Cruz). As the relationships develop and mutate, the film turns into a duel between love, which Allen sees as wild and libertine and probably European (at one point, three of the characters are living in communal erotic harmony), and commitment, which is shown to be fuddy-duddy and dishonest and probably American.
But that’s why Woody is such a hippie. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, there is no vision — no possibility — of a relationship that is long-term and monogamous yet amorous in spirit. To Allen, commitment is a conspiracy of society. It’s a drag, man! It’s just so damn…bourgeois.
I hope it’s not too bourgeois of me to point out that for a director who is trying to make a worldly romantic comedy, this is quite a shallow and jejune point of view. (It’s why the ’60s had to end.) Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a movie of distinct pleasures, a number of them of the travel-and-leisure variety (never mind all that wondrous, dripped-candle Gaudí architecture — what’s really fabulous is the long lunches in which people linger over wine). The writing is zippy, the story spins like a top, and Bardem turns out to be the wittiest of leading men, making Juan Antonio a seducer who is almost innocent in his games. As for Hall and Johansson, both of them have lovely presences, yet Vicky and Cristina, as characters, never quite transcend the schematic. They are mind and body, spirit and flesh, strait-laced and free. In Woody Allen’s perpetual counterculture, never the twain shall meet. B-