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Given its particulars—Allen’s creepy-old-man gaze, the subtext-free dialogue, the Michelin-guide tour of Catalan art and architecture, the predictable dramatic arc—Vicky Cristina Barcelona ought to have been an eye-roller. What a surprise that it’s so seductive. The Woodman lives! Allen finds the perfect tone: objective, with a hint of affectionate sympathy. He is obviously living through these femmes, getting off on their ripe flesh and heated couplings. But he’s also standing back, posing the right questions for a terminally unhappy 72-year-old who has, for all his productivity, never transcended his formidable hang-ups. Will Vicky and/or Cristina, upended by experience, radically transform? Or will they find reasons (internal and external) to return to the same paths? If you know Allen’s work, you’ll have no doubt as to their fates: The suspense is nonexistent. But this is not a jaded parable. You can feel Allen’s pain over the roads not taken.

The movie is funny, too—funny without strain, without the wheeze of Allen’s last few comedies. The milieu is fresh, the actors fresher. Rebecca Hall is a tall, striking Brit (the daughter of Sir Peter Hall) with stage training, and her American accent is studied: She’s channeling Mia Farrow, who was, of course, channeling Allen. But her readings are bright, and the echoes actually give the film more resonance. The role of Cristina is more of a construct, a fantasy, but you can’t argue with Johansson’s goddessy wattage. Cristina doesn’t need to form enduring attachments; she’s so luscious that no matter where she goes, men (and women) will come to her.

As the watered-down Crimes and Misdemeanors remake Match Point proved, foreign accents do wonders for Allen’s dialogue, and Bardem brings a charge to Don Juan lines as cornball as “The night is warm and balmy, isn’t that enough?” It’s certainly enough out of his mouth. Bardem knows you don’t play a part this shallow halfway. Juan Antonio means every word, but he’s also an actor who loves his role and savors the hunt—and is, with these two babes, in clover.

And that’s before Cruz’s Maria Elena bursts in, her staccato Spanish cascade a magnificent foil for Johansson’s lazy rhythms. There has never been a character like Cruz’s Maria Elena in an Allen movie—or at least one who self-dramatizes at this velocity. Cruz is so sensationally funny that I wish Allen would do his next film with her, in Spanish.

As lively and entertaining as Vicky Cristina Barcelona is, I wonder what Allen could do with characters who aren’t so distant from him—who acknowledge both their sexual hunger and their advancing age. When enough people objected to his casting himself romantically opposite women 30 years his junior, Allen didn’t write a film in which that age difference was acknowledged and explored—he simply made his lovers younger and cast himself as ineffectual (and sexless) old cranks. Maybe it’s time to do his own version of Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal (a.k.a., the film Elegy) or the new, heavy-handed Chabrol movie, A Girl Cut in Two, in which the aged artist is an SOB who pounces on a nubile sacrifice. Allen obsessed a lot more about aging and death in his thirties. He should overcome his temperamental squeamishness and write the brutal (preferably funny, too!) psychodrama I know—after the invigorating Vicky Cristina Barcelona—he must still have in him.

Tropic Thunder
Directed by Ben Stiller.
Dreamworks. R.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Directed by Woody Allen.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. PG-13.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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