The disparity between Woody Allen’s recent string of tormented meditations on murder and betrayal (“Match Point,” “Cassandra’s Dream”) and his weightless farces (“Anything Else,” “Scoop”) has led some to suggest that he dispense with his comic impulses altogether.
So it comes as a welcome surprise that Allen’s latest, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” is a comedy of refreshing depth that finds the 72-year-old filmmaker invigorated by the picturesque backdrop of the Mediterranean coast and a perfectly matched cast led by Javier Bardem as a preternaturally confident Don Juan.
Best known to American audiences as the unrelenting killer in “No Country for Old Men,” Bardem plays Juan Antonio, similarly single-minded though far less sinister. He is a free-spirited artist, an unequivocally sexual being whose methods of seduction are disarmingly blunt.
On their first meeting he invites a pair of pretty American strangers to join him for a weekend of carnal play. The more sensible of the two, Vicky (Rebecca Hall, “The Prestige”) initially rebukes him. Cristina (Scarlett Johannson), as impulsive as she is naive, eagerly accepts.
From there, the three embark on a summer-long sexual adventure that winds its way unhurriedly toward a conclusion grounded less in romanticism than in melancholy realism.
Vicky, whose corporate lawyer fiancé offers financial security and weekend getaways to the Hamptons but little in the way of emotional heat, yearns for Juan Antonio precisely because he is everything she secretly wants to be: spontaneous, adventurous, untamed.
Cristina, who considers herself all these things, tests the limits of her open-mindedness when she enters into a love triangle with Juan Antonio and his fiery ex, Maria Elena.
A wild-eyed painter ready to inject chaos into Cristina and Juan Antonio’s burgeoning romance, Penélope Cruz’s Maria Elena carries herself like a train barreling toward a head-on collision.
She is a fierce, commanding presence, and it comes as no surprise that Maria Elena begins to eclipse the younger Cristina in the eyes of their mutual lover.
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” which represents Allen’s strongest work since 1997’s “Deconstructing Harry,” serves notice that the Bronx-born director has lost none of his talent for thrusting his characters into impossible, slyly comical binds without hitting a single false note.
Wisely, Allen denies his characters their happily-ever-afters because, as Vicky and Cristina grudgingly learn, even the most passionate relationships are governed in the end by life’s mundane imperatives — what is possible trumping what is desired.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (three and a half stars)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Rebecca Hall, Patricia Clarkson
Written and directed by: Woody Allen
Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes