Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz lock lips in Vicky Christina Barcelona

Woody Allen’s latest film Vicky Christina Barcelona is being hailed by some critics as the director’s return to greatness. I suppose that’s the case if you like classic Woody Allen from his heyday. I’m talking the Annie Hall years when he focused on talky, neurotic New Yorkers in perpetual therapy.

I prefer his really early stuff (like Take the Money and Run) or his more recent stuff (like Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Match Point), where he was working outside of the box. Annie Hall was okay, but it’s far from my favorite.

However, Allen’s fan base has been bemoaning his films for years, insisting they aren’t the same as his work from the 70s and 80s. For those people, Vicky Christina Barcelona should turn things around.

The film follows Vicky and Christina (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson), two young and attractive Americans in Barcelona over the summer. One day, they are approached by Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who invites them on a weekend getaway. This serves as a catalyst for both women, one who is repressed and the other who is open-minded, to discover new things about their sexuality and themselves.

While the action takes place almost exclusively in Spain, the script is still a highlight of neurotic New Yorkers who babble on about nothing and everything. This is the essence of Woody Allen here, and if you don’t like his rambling dialogue, you will get annoyed with this film fast.

The film made a great deal of buzz because it features Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz (who plays Juan Antonio’s estranged ex-wife) locking lips before a menage a trois with Bardem. But don’t expect anything too scintillating. It is a Woody Allen movie, after all… and one that’s rated PG-13 at that. You don’t see much more than you do in the green-band trailer, and any steamy sex scene is replaced with oodles of neurotic dialogue.

There were too many problems with this film on the very basic level to allow me to enjoy myself. While the locations were beautiful, the cinematography was hit and miss. Several times, actors went soft in two-shots. Other scenes were lit with the precision of an old Honeymooner’s episode.

From the script standpoint, Allen’s Academy Award skills were left behind. Clunky dialogue (even for a Woody Allen film) slowed things down, and he peppers the film with pretentious, unnecessary and painfully obvious narration.

As far as the cast goes, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz stole the show. Cruz always feels uncomfortable in her English-language work but shines in almost anything in her native tongue. She acts circles around Johansson who serves as nothing more than a pretty face. The young starlet Scarlett may be Woody Allen’s new muse, but she’s truly awful in his films. (I think he keeps casting her because he just wants to get in her pants.)

The saving grace to this film is that Allen resisted the urge to put himself in the lead, favoring Bardem instead. Bardem embodies the quintessential sexy, free-spirited Spanish bohemian. Twenty years ago, Allen would have made himself the focus, which would have just been too creepy to handle.

THE UPSIDE: Okay, yes. It happens. Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson kiss.

THE DOWNSIDE: A boring turn of events from Allen’s more recent work.

ON THE SIDE: There’s a better lesbian kiss in the special features of the Army Wives: Season One DVD bonus features between Kim Delaney and Catherine Bell.

Grade: C-

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