In Woody Allen's latest, students Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) spend the summer in Barcelona as guests of a wealthy American couple. Vicky has a fiancé back in New York, while Cristina bounces in and out of intense, destructive relationships. The friends are meant to be two sides of a coin, and soon they both get involved with Juan Antonio, an artist played by Javier Bardem in a terrific performance—think Anton Chigurh as Casanova. But Bardem's fiery ex-wife (Penélope Cruz) soon enters the scene, complicating matters.
Allen's three previous movies took place in London, and it seems he's finally left Manhattan behind altogether. Vicky Cristina Barcelona functions well as a fluffy bit of tourism: We see rustic villas, long-haired classical guitar players, and Gaudí's architecture. Even more so than a Spanish travelogue, though, the movie works—as with much of Allen's work—as escapism into the world of mysteriously wealthy people. Juan Antonio owns a fantastic house, goes to exclusive parties, and charters planes on a whim; we see him paint, but we never see him sell a painting. His father, meanwhile, owns a beautiful, centuries-old villa in the countryside, and what does he do for a living? He's a poet. Oh, but he refuses to share any of his work with the undeserving public. So he's an unpublished poet.
As for the much-ballyhooed kiss between Johansson and Cruz, it's pretty tame. The real fire comes from Cruz's performance; she's riveting and hilarious as a passionate, possibly insane firebrand, and whenever she shares the screen with Johansson, it's easy to forget that Johansson has all the charisma of a wet paper bag. Cruz and Bardem both far surpass their American costars, their Spanish accents adding grace and believability to Allen's awkward dialogue—and bringing humor and gravity to a film that's otherwise pleasantly inconsequential.