You should hate these people, really, these smug American yuppies chatting gaily about golf, tennis and boating over red wine on a sun-splashed Spanish afternoon.
You’re also free to abhor the painters, poets and musicians who populate Barcelona and spend their bohemian days idly debating the merits of love and art — when they’re not wrapped up in making them both, that is.
Somehow, Woody Allen makes us not just tolerate them but find ourselves engaged in their adventures in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” his strongest film in quite a while.
What’s fascinating is the juxtaposition he’s created here: In obviously stilted, overly literary tones, his narrator describes his characters’ every action and emotion, and yet they themselves consistently act in impulsive, contradictory ways. These are civilized people, behaving badly but played straight by the actors, and that’s the chief source of laughs.
“She was grounded and realistic,” the narrator says of Vicky (Rebecca Hall) as she and her fellow American tourist Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) absent-mindedly gaze out the windows of the cab carrying them from the Barcelona airport toward the summer of exploration that awaits them. The construct would seem pretentious if Allen himself weren’t undermining it at every turn.
Hall and Johansson, Allen’s recent muse, co-star as best friends who couldn’t be more different in terms of their deeds and dreams. Vicky is a practical and structured student pursuing her master’s degree in Catalan culture. Cristina, meanwhile, is a restless and passionate aspiring photographer. She has no idea what she wants; she only knows what she doesn’t want.
But both bright young women respond in surprising ways to sexy artist Juan Antonio (an irresistible Javier Bardem), a stranger who invites them to spend the weekend with him. Vicky naturally thinks he’s a Eurotrash clich and tries to fend him off, but Cristina is intrigued — and who could blame her? How things begin with him, though, aren’t necessarily how they end, which is where much of the fun of “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” lies.
X“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexuality and smoking. Running time: 97 minutes. Grade: A