Vicky Christina Barcelona

A nice European vacation can work wonders — just ask Woody Allen. His 40th feature is a breezy travelogue of Spain, as pleasant as a mild summer afternoon and just about as laid-back and relaxed as the king of uptight comedy has ever been behind a camera. Like his two title heroines, college pals living out a summer-long Continental fantasy, Allen gets lost in the romance of Barcelona — the food, the music, the Guadi architecture — and he offers a picture as messy and satisfying as a fine Paella.

For decades the Wood man remained entombed in his safe Big Apple sarcophagus, continuing to haunt the upper West Side like some specter of his former self. Manhattan had become a prison for the man who nearly invented New York neurosis, at once too familiar, yet a place he no longer understood.

So, beginning with 2005's Match Point, Woody hopped across the pond, for an extended tour that has produced works that, if not always great (looking at you, Scoop), have at least opened up his horizons.

Vicky Christina is an insubstantial lark, but an enjoyable one that manages to squeeze in the director's pet theme of romance vs. reality in a way that feels fresh even after four decades and 40 films.

The key to this freshness is the outstanding cast, led by Woody's current muse Scarlett Johansson as Christina. She's doesn't have Diane Keaton's comedy chops, and her line readings can be stiff, but she's a perfect totem of Allen's peccadilloes, the waspy golden girl he can never really have, from a world he can never really belong to. Her counterpart Vicky, in a terrific, scene-stealing performance by Rebecca Hall, is every bit as anxious and grounded as Christina is flighty. Both friends are putty in the hands of Javier Bardem's seductive advances, when his smooth-talking artist Juan Antonio strolls in and propositions them both at a café.

Bardem's as charming here as he was frightening in No Country For Old Men, as slippery smooth as butter on ice, even though he's a total cad. Soon enough he's zipping both of them away for a weekend jaunt in a private plane, and just as quickly he's unzipping their pants. Of course, there are complications: Vicky has a boring, golf-loving fiance back home, and Juan has a hydrogen bomb of an ex-wife, played with frantic hilarity by Penélope Cruz. They have a toxic, turbulent, furniture-busting relationship straight from a Marcello Mastroianni movie, one that nothing can fully disrupt, even when Cruz and Johansson have a passionate liaison in a dark room.

For a change, sex isn't an academic exercise in an Allen picture; there's real, smoldering intensity in some scenes, even if they ruin it by constantly talking about "making love," a phrase no one under 50 uses without a laugh. Sure Woody's still a fuddy-duddy at heart, but, like the buttoned-down Vicky learns to do, he can still live for the day.

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