Woody Allen has supposedly had more comebacks than Rocky Balboa. An acquired taste at the best of times, recent attempts at recapturing the form of Annie Hall have resulted in Scoop (yet to be released in the UK) and Cassandra’s Dream. Anybody see that one? Thought not.
So it comes with relative surprise that this refreshingly sprightly comedy is really rather good. Some might call it a return to form.
Intent on trying to squeeze the first half-decent performance from Scarlett Johansson since Lost in Translation, Allen casts his erstwhile muse as Cristina, a promiscuous dreamer searching for a special kind of love. Friend Vicky (Rebecca Hall – Frost/Nixon) however, has found hers – that is until separate trysts with Spanish lothario Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) lead both women on emotional journeys and a collision course with his less-than-stable ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz).
This is a hell of a lot of fun, not the emotionally traumatic dissecting of human emotions that the synopsis suggests. There is an almost playful feel to proceedings that’s extremely infectious. Sure, the situation gets heightened to sitcom standards as the plot unwinds, and you will question whether or not people actually behave this way, but it’s frequently hilarious and never less than amusing watching these beautiful people flounder.
The strong performances help. Johansson is sultry and sulky and possibly the least accessible of these caricatures, but still delivers an improved turn. Hall is the closest thing to “normal” for most of the movie and plays off the big personalities of the other leads with likeable results. Bardem too is excellent; his bravura attitude to life provides the film’s real comedic highs.
Scene and potentially award stealing though is Cruz as the mad ex-wife. She lets loose with an untethered performance of schizophrenic excellence that focuses the movie when it threatens to deteriorate into farce.
Shot against some beautiful Spanish vistas, Allen’s direction and dialogue is fine; even the initially intrusive narration becomes kookily appealing to hear. It’s just a shame that in amongst all of the bed-hopping and love procrastination, the only thing Vicky Cristina Barcelona lacks is real heart.