In Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the director's 334th film (the number may actually be a bit lower, but I've lost count), Scarlett Johansson plays a young dabbler in the arts, whose most notable achievement so far has been directing a short film about, as she puts it, "why love is so hard to define." Even if this weren't a Woody Allen movie, Johansson's slightly pompous statement is the perfect set-up for a joke, and the punch line comes when someone dryly responds, "That's a big subject to cover in 12 minutes."
Vicky Cristina Barcelona takes an additional 84 minutes, but Allen's sly joke is that his movie addresses that same impossibly immense and elusive topic — and, in its modest way, actually manages to pull it off. The deceptively simple story here concerns Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and her friend Cristina (Johansson), two young Americans whose notions of love and romance go through curious changes while spending the summer in Barcelona. Vicky is the levelheaded one in this pair, happily monogamous with her dull, businessman fiancé, while Cristina's craving for adventure and "counter-intuitive love" draws her to a passionate and unstable Spanish painter named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). The characters all wind up coupling in various combinations, and not the ones you'd necessarily expect, and when Juan Antonio's brilliant, volatile, sexy and totally unhinged ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) shows up, the dynamics change in even more unpredictable ways.
Allen avoids playing any of this as melodrama, and although Vicky Cristina Barcelona isn't really a comedy, there's a lighter, tongue-in-cheek tone here that puts all the bed-hopping and hand-wringing in perspective, and that's certainly a refreshing change of pace from the director's recent forays in quasi-thriller territory (Match Point and Cassandra's Dream). Sizeable chunks of the film are accompanied by an unseen narrator's oddly formal voice-over, which provides an interesting contrast with the looser feel of the performances and underscores the way that Vicky Cristina Barcelona works a bit like a good short story.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (PG-13) Stars Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Penelope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson and Chris Messina. Opens Aug. 15 at local theaters. 3.5 stars