Like shipwrecked sailors awaiting the return of the hero sent for help, comedy-deprived moviegoers are desperate for the return of the old Woody Allen, the one who made them laugh. Each new Allen film is frantically examined as soon as it appears on the horizon: “Is that him? Is he back? Please, God, let him be back.”
This frenetic searching has been going on for so long that Allen spoofed it in 1980’s “Stardust Memories,” having aliens from outer space yearn for “the early, funny ones.” But as much as we’d like it to be true and despite what you may have heard, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is not the return of Woody Allen. Elvis has truly left the building and, judging by appearances, he’s not coming back.
That’s not to say that this story of naive Americans (Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall) facing off against oh-so-sophisticated Europeans (Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz) is completely lacking in pleasures, particularly the strong performances of the matched pair of Spaniards. Truly, the current comedy desert is so parched of adult fare that being no more than amusing around the edges is better than the usual sharp stick in the eye offered by typical summer comedy.
The problem, however, is that despite promising elements, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is too intent on being taken seriously to be more than mildly diverting. Allen said in interviews that this was a film about relationships, not a comedy, and he was not being falsely modest.
Yes, some of Allen’s best work bridges that gap, but “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” has neither the humor nor the insights to captivate. Despite its focus on the romantic entanglements of innocents abroad, it is not only not Henry James, it doesn’t even rise to the level of Henry James Lite.
We are introduced to Vicky and Cristina, close friends since college, as they are introduced to Barcelona, arriving at the airport to spend the summer with one of Vicky’s distant relatives (a squandered Patricia Clarkson). As they take a taxi into the city, the film’s soon-to-be-tedious Christopher Evan Welch voice-over fills us in on their personal details.
Vicky (Hall) is the more grounded and realistic of the friends. Working on a master’s on Catalan identity (which she is pursuing despite knowing little Spanish), Vicky is engaged to be married to Wall Street drone Doug (Chris Messina) and believes in what the voice-over calls “the beauty of commitment.”
Cristina (Johansson), on the other hand, is into suffering, passion and risk. She recently finished a 12-minute film on why love is hard to define and has just broken up with the latest of what we are led to believe is an impressive string of boyfriends.
It’s Cristina, naturally, who catches the eye of rogue painter Juan Antonio (Bardem) at an art opening. He’s just been through a difficult divorce from Maria Elena (Cruz), a wife who stuck a knife in him, but that doesn’t stop this unabashed seducer from chatting them both up and inviting them to spend a menage-a-trois weekend with him. “Life is short and full of pain,” he candidly explains, “and this is a chance for something special.”
No matter what you end up thinking about “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” even if you lose patience with its travelogue cinematography and its voyeuristic approach to its young actresses, it is hard not to be entertained by the Oscar-winning Bardem, who eats this role up like it was a hot fudge sundae. Looking every inch the smoldering Latin lover, he is having the time of his life inhabiting a Valentino stereotype at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from his psychotic killer in “No Country for Old Men.” In fact, Bardem’s performance is so good it tends to mask how lacking much of what surrounds it is.
As the relationship among these three gets increasingly complicated, the ex-wife reenters the scene, and Cruz does vivid work as well as Maria Elena, the Queen of Mood Swings, a woman who never met a tantrum she didn’t like.
Faring far less well are the other two women in the cast, both prisoners to varying degrees of Allen’s weaknesses. The gifted Hall, British and with considerable stage experience, manages to at least hold her own, but Johansson’s connection with Allen -- this is their third film together -- has not done her any favors.
That’s because Allen’s films have become increasingly underwritten and indifferently directed. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” remains half-formed from beginning to end, sullenly refusing to resolve in any satisfactory way and getting increasingly sour and misanthropic without offering anything that even resembles a perceptive glimpse into human behavior. There is nothing wrong with Allen’s determination to mix humor and drama, it’s simply too bad he’s not getting better at it.
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexuality and smoking. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. In general release.