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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Woody Allen has had quite a career. He's made masterpieces, misfires, and a whole lot of pictures in between. I've been a fan through it all. I'd rather see a bad Woody Allen movie than the best movie from many lesser filmmakers. On those occasions when he does hit one out of the park, it's a true cause for celebration. His latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, belongs in the ranks of his best recent works. It may not be quite the career high note that Match Point was, but it's still a good example of Allen doing what he does best.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona employs a voiceover narrator to guide us through the story. The generally accepted rule (at least among screenwriters) is that this is a lazy device, a way to tell the audience things you aren't capable of dramatizing. It's a rare movie that can make narration work, and I think this is one of them. Through the narrator, we are introduced to two young women, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who vacation together in Barcelona one summer and have very different perspectives on love. We are told that the engaged-to-be-married Vicky longs for stability and security above all else, while the more free-wheeling Cristina doesn't know what she wants, other than that she constantly seeks something completely different from whatever she currently has.

Both those attitudes are put to the test when the women meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), an artist who approaches them in a restaurant and spontaneously announces his desire to bed them, either together or separately. Vicky tells him to bug off; Cristina tells him maybe. They end up all hanging out together, and despite her protestations, Vicky finds herself attracted to Juan Antonio. So does Cristina, and they end up dating despite the fact that we sense he'd rather be with her friend a little more. Cristina's sense of experimentation faces a serious challenge when Juan Antonio's ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) enters the picture, completely changing the nature of the relationship.

I don't want to give too much away here, but there's been a lot of coverage about Vicky Cristina Barcelona in the entertainment press, most of it revolving around a kiss between Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz. I won't tell you why it happens or in what context, but I do want to point out that the scene epitomizes a lot of what I like about the movie. No, I'm not talking about two impossibly hot women making out; instead, I'm talking about the way Allen explores the romantic/sexual mores of the characters. Here you have two women contemplating issues of love and sex. Vicky thinks she knows what she wants but might be wrong. Cristina claims not to know what she wants but may, in fact, have a better sense of it, because she recognizes her continual need for something new. Through their interactions with Juan Carlos and (eventually) Maria Elena, each woman ends up confronting her own beliefs, with results that are often as surprising to them as they are to us.

The way the movie handles this scenario is endlessly fascinating to watch. Allen has always specialized in creating complex characters and placing them in situations that bring out their specific neuroses for our entertainment. Consider the dynamic between Cristina, her lover, and his ex-wife. She thinks of herself as open-minded and even allows herself the luxury of acting on that belief, but ultimately has to wonder at what point experimentation stops being provocative and fun and starts becoming routine. Then there's Vicky who, with her fiancée, may have stability and security, but maybe not the same kind of dangerous passion she could have with Juan Antonio. Which is better? Allen leaves that up to us, but I think it's safe to say that Vicky Cristina Barcelona comes closer than anything to exploring Allen's famous quote (made in a time of personal scandal), "the heart wants what it wants."

I love all this human interaction, which is brought to life by a superb cast. This is Johansson's third film with Allen. She is, perhaps, his newest muse, and he uses her abilities well. I admire the way Johansson underplays, suggesting Cristina's wild side without needing to resort to the stereotypical clichés of such a character (overt sluttiness, larger than life personality, etc.). Javier Bardem is believable as the lothario; the role would surely come off as sleazy in lesser hands, and it's a testament to his talent that he finds a way to make Juan Antonio likable. Penelope Cruz shines too, as a fiery woman whose temper and lustful passion are often hard to tell apart. But the real revelation is Rebecca Hall (The Prestige), an actress who'd never been on my radar until now. With just a subtle facial expression or a slight tone of voice, she ably conveys all the longing and wonder that causes Vicky to doubt everything she's ever believed. This is a performance that deserves Oscar consideration.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is being sold as a comedy, but I'm not sure that label fits. Granted, there are some funny moments, but this is not Woody Allen in full-on joke mode. There are no pithy one-liners or scenes of excessive comic neuroticism. Instead, he simply focuses on this group of people who are trying to make sense of the very complicated concepts of love and sex. Could the film have been even deeper than it is? Yes, absolutely. But I love where Allen ultimately takes the story. I was expecting a predictable outcome, where the girl who says she wants stability chooses reckless abandon, and the girl who craves reckless abandon chooses romantic stability. I won't spoil what happens, but the plot doesn't quite take Vicky and Cristina where we - or they - expect, if it takes them anywhere at all. And that, more than anything, is what makes Vicky Cristina Barcelona so wonderfully engrossing.

( out of four)

Air Guitar Nation is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexuality, and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.

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