DVD Release Date:  January 27, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  August 15, 2008 
Rating:  PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving sexuality, and smoking)
Genre:  Comedy, Drama, Romance
Run Time:  96 min.
Director:  Woody Allen
Cast:  Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Rebecca Hall

Woody Allen’s world—both private and professional—has always been a weird one.  In his latest film, which showcases his newest “muse,” Scarlett Johansson, he serves up his nihilistic worldview.  Here, he tells us, hedonism is the answer.

Best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) travel to Barcelona for the summer, where they visit Vicky’s family friends, Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and Mark (Kevin Dunn). During an art exhibition, Cristina is attracted to the renowned painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who has a Casanova reputation. Later, he lives up to his name by suggesting that Cristina and Vicky join him for jaunt to a nearby island, where they can engage in a threesome.

Vicky, sporting an engagement ring the size of J.Lo’s, is horrified, and tells Juan Antonio in no uncertain terms that she is not that kind of girl.  Like her fiancé back home, Vicky is prosaic and logical, and she can’t wait to return to her predictable life in New York.  She cautions the mercurial Cristina against Juan Antonio, but Cristina is searching for something, she knows not what, and has a habit of going from one relationship to another.

So, fresh on the heels of her most recent failed romance, Cristina falls into the arms of the Spaniard.  Their liaison isn’t consummated, however, because of a stomach bug that hits Cristina just as they kiss.  She ends up stuck in bed—and not in the way she’d imagined.  For the duration of the weekend, Juan Antonio and Vicky must make do, alone.  And naturally, despite her best intentions, Vicky falls prey to Juan Antonio’s charms.

Back in Barcelona, however, Juan Antonio is interested in Cristina.  Soon, the two have moved in together, leaving Vicky to ponder her folly.  When she hears about what is going on at Juan Antonio’s, however, she’s all too glad that she didn’t follow her “heart.”  Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, the fiery Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), has moved in.  The pair divorced after Maria Elena stabbed him.  But Juan Antonio is still in love with Maria Elena, and now she’s back, after a suicide attempt.

It takes some adjusting for Cristina to accept her new roommate.  But soon, the little hedonist has fallen into the groove.  She even finds that she’s attracted to Maria Elena.  The question is, will Cristina finally find what she’s been looking for?

Allen is back, fresh on the heels of his recent string of cinematic flops.  Here, he substitutes Barcelona for his beloved New York, transforming that city into a character all its own.  We see the city in its exquisite glory—the food, the wine, the romance, the art.  We also see the beautiful, well-dressed people, including Johansson.  She’s no Diane Keaton—and neither is Hall—but both can act.  And so can Bardem. But it’s Cruz, surprisingly, who is most compelling. She’s come a long way.

The direction is good.  Allen is talented, and he knows how to coax strong performances from his talent.  He even manages to create sympathy for Juan Antonio, despite the character’s auspicious beginning.  The pacing is a little off, with very little conflict until midway through the film, when Maria Elena finally arrives, but the lovely Barcelona vistas sustain viewer interest.  Also, while all of Allen’s films bear his trademark voiceover (in this case, by Christopher Evan Welch instead of Allen), here—as in most of his films—it is both redundant and pedantic.

Many will overlook the film’s message, and see it merely as a superficial look at superficial people.  But Allen—who wrote the script—has a very distinct point of view that he conveys throughout the film.  First, he lives and breathes a world of great wealth.  Even though two of the main characters are artists, for example, money is never an issue, and they live in very expensive homes. Allen never shows us anyone who isn’t wealthy, much less who is struggling.  It’s clear that the mere concept is remote.

His characters also engage in plenty of immorality—without consequence.  They eat, drink (and drink) and make merry, yet no one is ever satisfied.  Even those who have loving marriages aren’t content, leading us to conclude that the human heart will always be fickle.  The answer, therefore, is to follow that “heart,” again and again, even if that results in a total implosion of life and relationships.  Love will—and should—find a way.  Even if it’s not love, but lust.  Otherwise we’ll just be miserable.  And oh, what a tragedy that would be.

Allen ignores, of course, his own onscreen conundrum, which is that whatever love/lust we do find will eventually dissipate, leaving us searching for meaning, yet again.  Essentially, he’s saying that eros will solve the pain of a heart homesick not for passionate sex, but for unconditional, all-abiding love.  And that is a desperately tragic message—even if it is wrapped up in beautiful people and stunning scenery.

DVD EXTRAS:

  • Scenes
  • Trailers

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Characters consume large quantities of wine throughout film.  Several comments are made about decisions made after too much wine.  Several scenes with smoking as well.
  • Language/Profanity:  A few mild profanities and/or obscenities.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Numerous discussions about adult sexual themes, including characters swapping partners; threesomes and dabbling in homosexuality.  No nudity, however, and all sexual situations, save one (which is brief) are offscreen.
  • Violence:  An extended discussion about a wife who stabbed her husband; discussion about a suicide attempt and one scene in which a character threatens others with a gun then shoots someone, injuring them.