RATING |

Here's a pickup line for you: "Life is short. Life is dull. Life is full of pain."

That's how Javier Bardem, as a painter named Juan Antonio, propositions a pair of young Americans in a Barcelona boite one night. Come with me for the weekend, he suggests to the two girlfriends, prescribing an antidote to his bleak existential assessment of things. We'll laugh, we'll dine, we'll drink, we'll make love. Why not?

Well, it doesn't quite happen that way. But it's to Woody Allen's credit - writer and director of the lovely, loping Vicky Cristina Barcelona - and to that of Bardem, and Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson as Vicky and Cristina, respectively, that this crucial, and perhaps improbable scene, works so convincingly. If it hadn't, the whole triangular - no, make that rectangular - tale of love and seduction, friendship and art, tapas and vino, would have fallen apart.

The fourth constituent in Allen's balmy romantic reverie is Penelope Cruz. Although her character, Maria Elena, doesn't show up until midway into the story, Cruz is crazy, explosive, wonderful as Juan Antonio's ex. A fellow artist, Maria Elena reenters Juan Antonio's life just as Johansson's Cristina has moved into it - and moved into his house as well.

Smoking, shouting, practically shooting off sparks, Cruz spreads a wildfire sexuality across Allen's sunny tableau of Catalan country picnics and scenic Barcelona ramblings. Cruz and Bardem, who have a history together - the erotically charged 1992 Spanish import, Jamón, Jamón, and Pedro Almodovar's 1997 gem, Live Flesh - turn what could have been a cartoon rendering of hot-blooded Latin passion into a seriously unpredictable relationship.

Johansson, in her third Allen picture, plays a boldly impetuous but adrift woman ricocheting in and out of affairs. She's the polar opposite of her best friend from college, Vicky. And the English actress Hall, who anchors the movie with a quiet sadness, is terrific as this I've-mapped-out-my-life American, engaged to be married to a financial guy back in New York (Chris Messina). Vicky is in Barcelona for the summer, doing research for her thesis paper on Catalan identity.

"Sometimes she gets on my nerves with her crackpot love affairs," Vicky says about Cristina at one point, but it's Vicky's love affair - or thwarted affair - with Juan Antonio that gives Allen's movie its emotional resonance.

With able support from Patricia Clarkson, as a family friend of Vicky's, living in Spain and living in pain over her own unhappy marriage, Vicky Cristina Barcelona covers familiar Allen territory: Like Husbands and Wives, Hannah and Her Sisters, Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the list can go on and on, Allen's latest offers an exploration of romantic longing, of men and women falling in and out of love, behaving foolishly, and badly.

But while the territory is familiar, the terrain is new: Allen shoots his title city with an eye for its art and architecture (the Miro Museum, the Gaudi spires) and upscale bohemianism, and then takes off down lazy, hazy country roads, with his cast of characters pedaling their bicycles and reclining beneath big old trees.

There is a scenic side trip to Oviedo on the country's northern coast, too. To be sure, the Spanish tourism business will not suffer because of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. And as cheap summer getaways go, a movie ticket that takes you into this sensual world of trysts and talks and glasses of wine, well, it's a bargain excursion.

It's easy to forget what an accomplished filmmaker Allen is. His prolific-ness, and his impatience with the production process, have made for huge bar-graph fluctuations between the really good (Match Point, say) and the really bad (Melinda and Melinda). But there's a little throwaway scene in Vicky Cristina Barcelona that speaks to Allen's huge talent: On a terrace restaurant at night, Vicky, shellshocked by love, is seated with her mild-mannered fiance and another couple visiting from New York. Vicky's betrothed is telling a joke that has to do with a Persian rug, but Allen fades the voice track down so we never get to hear the punch line. There's a casual brilliance to this scene, the way it's shot, timed, cut. And Allen doesn't even bother with the quick, easy one-liner. The long-ago stand-up comic and career funnyman has more important things on his mind.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona ***1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Woody Allen. With Javier Bardem, Patricia Clarkson, Penelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson. Distributed by the Weinstein Co.

Running time: 1 hour, 37 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (sex, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz Five and Showcase at the Ritz Center/N.J.EndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea
at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.