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By Matthew Sorrento | February 23, 2009

Let’s not kid ourselves: There’s something about Javi. Bardem was lively as a quadriplegic in the overly conventional “The Sea Inside” and proved oddly charismatic as a sociopath in “No Country for Old Men.” Now, in Woody Allen’s new overseas dalliance “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Bardem dons his real hairstyle and assembles a triage of babes around him. Yet, in what sounds like an escape to cinematic wish fulfillment – anyone remember “Summer Lovers” with Daryl Hannah? – Woody realizes an honest tale of unexpected desire.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) take to Barcelona for an extended vacation. The former is there to study Catalan culture, while Cristina is out to surfeit herself on worldly experience or a good time, whichever comes first. When Juan Antonio (Bardem) approaches them in a bistro for a weekend of all kinds of fun, Cristina is piqued while Vicky rationalizes her disgust to the upfront artist.

Then comes the type of two-tiered irony that only Woody seems able to pull off. Vicky joins Cristina and Juan Antonio on the weekend trip to an island, and when the readily available Cristina stays home sick, things click between Vicky and Juan Antonio, leading to a night of passion. But she stays in her engaged mindset afterward, while Juan Antonio eventually gets things going with Cristina. Not so different from Vicky after all, Juan Antonio has his own marital baggage in the form of an ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz).

Crazed and suicidal, Maria Elena shows up at his house after Cristina has moved in. Tales about Maria Elena and Juan Antonio are heard all around town, about how he may have attacked her, or she him. Cristina realizes that the two share a deep, destructive bond, while Maria Elena serves as a muse to every artist she encounters. Juan Antonio admits that he owes much of his painting style to her, while she leads Cristina to new inspiration in her photography.

Now that Maria Elena has moved in, things reignite between her and Juan Antonio, even if he and Cristina grow hotter all the while. When all three converge, Woody suggests his own “Summer Lovers” – even if things stay PG-13! – but his character scope goes far beyond sexuality. Juan Antonio’s attention to Cristina, even with an ex on his hands, shows true compassion. Sex aside, the connection between all three is grounded on artistic sensibility and mutual interest.

Yet through all this, there sits Vicky, regretting her initial reaction to Juan Antonio. She weds in Barcelona, and her Manhattan-ite husband, Doug (Chris Messina), is responsible to the point of banality, too concerned with amassing wealth. (But can we blame him? How else can we aspire to your lofty lifestyles, Woody?) Hence, Bardem’s artist makes for an ideal counterpart to Doug, while Cruz becomes much more than the embodiment of the American women’s newfound passion.

Newcomer Hall works as the self-conscious Vicky, even if the actor trips over some dense Woody lines, while that Javi is as naturally true as ever. As Maria Elena, who’s talked up as much as Harry Lime before she appears midway, Cruz earns such a welcome by nearly walking away with the film. Should we Americans laugh at a crazed Spanish babe, whose ethnicity appears rooted in madness? – with Cruz’s fine touch, Woody says we can.

And that leaves us with Johansson, who continues her neverending journey to become a competent performer. Her delicate physicality suggests a golden-age starlet, probably why Woody can’t get enough of her lately. Yet her stilted presence feels like an old-time performance next to the elegantly natural Bardem and Cruz.

Once again, Johansson is out of step in Woody’s contrived universe, the rest of which hums the film into an intelligent late-summer diversion.

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