Spanish Lessons: Threesomes and Lesbian Kisses-What Woody Allen Learned on His Summer Vacation

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VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA

DIRECTED BY Woody Allen

STARRING Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, and Penelope Cruz

WEINSTEIN

WOODY ALLEN IS SO SYNONYMOUS with Manhattan that when he left his familiar digs for a four-film idyll in Europe (starting with 2005's Match Point and culminating now with Vicky Cristina Barcelona), it was natural to wonder whether he'd capture the same depth in his adopted locales as he had in his hometown. The answer? Not quite. Shot like appreciative travelogues (and often starring Americans), the films tend to stall in shallow cultural observations. If Match Point taught us that Brits are so consumed by class they'd kill for it, 2007's Cassandra's Dream told us ... exactly the same thing.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Allen's first film set in Spain, and initially his cultural interest in the country seems just as skin-deep. The film centers around American tourists Vicky (played by Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (played by Scarlett Johansson, who also starred in Match Point). The women encounter sometime Latin lovers (played by Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz)--a pair literally called "fiery" by the narrator. The fact that Vicky is described as loving Spanish guitar and Gaudi is just one of the warning bells to go off in the film's first hour; the loudest comes when the 20-something American heroines (who spend the whole movie speaking like 80-year-old dowagers) express irritation at attending yet another game of bridge. Woody, there's a new card game the kids are into: Texas hold 'em. Check it out.

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And yet the movie eventually works--thanks in no small part to the skilled actors, who manage to expand their characters past the realm of cliche At first there are just Vicky and Cristina, who are spending the summer with friends in Barcelona. Vicky has escaped New York to study Catalan identity in Barcelona for her master's; the narrator repeatedly tells us that she is "quite moved" by everything she finds. Everything, that is, except for Juan Antonio (Bardem), a seductive Spanish artist whom the flee-spirited Cristina is all too happy to pursue. …