I caught this film last night in Philadelphia; went with reasonably low expectations, but Woody Allen's latest is a funny and charming film, and while I can't say it has much that is new on the twisted ways of the human heart, it represents those caprices very effectively.
In large part, the film is a spoof -- of a certain American romanticization of Europe, of the "romance of Europe" -- and indeed the film has a mock-earnest voiceover (by, as far as I could tell, Woody Allen himself), as well as "stock" characters too hackneyed to be taken seriously -- such as Javier Bardem's Lothario of a painter Juan Gonzalez, his fiery ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), and the strait-laced American Vicky (Rebecca Hall), not to mention her free-spirited friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson). But the film is more than a spoof by the time it ends, and it is to Allen's credit that he makes us care about the film's ostensibly cardboard characters (certainly about the two women featured in the title), and appreciate the sheer messiness that romance entails.
And this romance is certainly messy: Gonzalez propositions both Vicki and Cristina; the latter is charmed, the former appalled, at the painter's boldness, but one thing leads to another and both women end up losing their hearts to him. He, in turn, is utterly unable or unwilling to get over his ex-wife, the combustible Maria Elena. To add to the complications, Vicki is engaged, and Cristina moves in with Gonzalez, only to be joined by Maria Elena in an uncomfortable threesome (if seeing Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson lock lips is something that lights your fire, then this is the film for you).
As should go without saying, the shadow of Jules and Jim hangs over this film, and Allen's latest effort certainly cannot approach the subversive playfulness, the sheer sexiness, of Truffaut's masterpiece. But Allen offers us scathing comedy, perhaps at the expense of an American audience (Vicky's field of study is "Catalan Identity", yet she doesn't bat an eyelid when Gonzalez tells her his dad refuses to speak any language other than Spanish -- surely an odd stance for one identified as "Catalan"; and Barcelona seems as Spanish as Spain can be to the American characters in this film -- which would be news to a population so attached to its non- (Castilian) Spanish identity that the provincial government famously took out ads in international magazines on the eve of the Barcelona Olympics, announcing that the games would be held in "Catalonia", no more and no less). Barcelona, and perhaps more broadly, Europe, is not so much a state of mind in this film as a fantasy, perhaps even a delusion.
Overall, 96 minutes well-spent: like many of Woody Allen's recent films, this one too has more than a touch of frivolity about it. This time, though, it is wholly appropriate to its madcap subject.