Two girls head out on an overseas vacation together and... we've heard this plotline before haven't we? Of course we have! No doubt about it. The last time we watched this premise lead into something, the girls were American, the foreign city was Paris and when all was said and done we learnt that Liam Neeson could be a very convincing action hero.
In Vicky Cristina Barcelona however, there are no action heroes -- at least not of the kicking and punching variety. Unless we take the character of Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) into account but wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.
The two girls in question are Vicky (Rebecca Hall -- looks a little like a younger Madeleine Stowe) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson -- of course you know what she looks like) so naturally the city they travel to must be the final word in this movie's title i.e. Barcelona. This is another one of Woody Allen's recent away-from-New York movies. So is the plot also alien territory for the septuagenarian filmmaker?
See, it is a little-concealed fact that Mr Allen tends to write movies for himself to star in, and since he is no action hero his films tend to be filled with dryly witty dialogue -- because one imagines the man has had many years of practice speaking. The dramatic reach for the auteur in this case is that he does not feature in the film. And this is supposed to be a story told from the perspective of its female cast. So the neurotic uptight individual's role is entrusted to Ms Hall. Which means that Ms Johansson gets to play the 'free spirit'.
Yup, this is that kind of senior citizen's wish fulfillment.
Toss in a slightly emaciated Javier Bardem as the artist Juan Antonio Gonzalo, who wastes no time in inviting both the young ladies to join him in a sexual liaison, and you have what passes for the inciting incident for this film.
Now nothing (seemingly) upsets the cinematic American woman as much as finding out that there is an ex lurking in the shadows who isn't quite done with the man she is currently bedding. That ex is played with appropriately kooky whack-job energy by Ms Cruz and though she appears late and stays not very long (relative to the duration of the movie), the folks that make such decisions saw fit to award her an Oscar for her performance as Maria Elena.
Does all of the above mean that Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a good movie? It certainly looks good and the cast is very easy on the eyes. This however is not vintage Allen, nor is it really a reinvigorated Allen. This is Allen trying to insinuate his very particular worldview on a new audience through actors who aren't him (or even male for that matter).
Does it work? As a minor afternoon distraction perhaps. But I wouldn't invest the requisite effort to go to a movie theatre to watch this one. Especially since it has been out on DVD around the world for so long already.