Vicky Cristina Barcelona

07/30/2008 12:00 AM |

Each new Woody Allen movie and its particular shortfalls provoke another round of diagnosis and rationalization. Vicky Cristina Barcalounger feeds one late-period view of the filmmaker as diagrammer of shallow characters played by attractive actors in well-appointed settings. The past three London locations and now Barcelona, all paired with plots hinging on how the other half lives (or kills), even suggest a core nostalgia for adequate movies that perform a basic service of whisking us somewhere pretty and posh for a couple diverting hours of dramatic suspense.

Barcelona certainly looks pretty as a postcard, a look suited to the nearing-quarter-life characters and their enlightening escapade with a bohemian who knows how to live. Fussy grad student Vicky (Rebecca Hall) brings footloose pal Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) to stay with expat family friends (cue sumptuous terrace). Painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, soft-selling the smolder) propositions both at once. Vicky declines at first but does get distracted from her toolish banker fiancé back home; Cristina eventually moves in with Juan Antonio, happy till the return of nightmare ex-girlfriend Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz, moody and tough).

If you miss any of this along the way, don’t worry, a voiceover signposts major themes and thought processes. It’s an unnecessary layer that often sets up Johansson and Hall for more than they can deliver, and only underlines Allen’s difficulties setting tone, and his persistent aloofness despite Bardem and Cruz’s efforts to imply more detailed lives. But after years of making neurosis a fun and accessible lifestyle, the director here taps into enough life-station-in-the-balance anxiety to keep this trip from being a total bust.

Opens August 15.