This film has me convinced that only Spanish-speaking men can be truly romantic, and if you see it you'll find it hard to disagree. Woody Allen's newest is a return to old form - the prickly, clever dialogue jumps off the page and the beautiful Spanish vistas provide a mood of irrepressible sensuality that Allen has never before captured. I think that the charm of this film comes from the discovery, on Allen's part, of its Spanish culture - maybe he should keep making films in other countries just to stay fresh. It seems like America bores him now.
VCB showcases some subtler comedy than Woody has displayed in the past. There's an excellent attention to detail here in both the writing (which is impeccably restrained) and the direction (I love the cut where Doug, after listening to Cristina's tale of lesbionic darkroom dalliances, puts the napkin in his lap and then there's a cut to a scene of him with a laptop on his lap, sitting on the bed - shrewd editing). It isn't hard to get swept away in the film's raw aura of sexuality - the fact that nothing graphic is shown, I think, makes it more potent - and the rich, earthy sepias of both the camerawork and the Spanish surrounds adds greatly to the mood.
Performances are fine all around. The lead actresses - Scarlett Johansson as Cristina and Rebecca Hall as Vicky - are somewhat miscast, in my opinion. Johansson has a beautiful face and a kind of warm openness to the sensuality of the film, but she just doesn't have the kind of talent needed in order to easily maneuver Allen's tricksy dialogue. The character seems to fit Johansson's overall persona well, but she lacks both the comic and dramatic talent to really make Cristina have a dynamic impression. Rebecca Hall is quite good - great, at times - but she's a British actress playing an American character, and her performance seems more like a caricature of Ivy League Americanism than an embodiment of it. She's a good actress and I'm glad she's in high-profile films, but I wish they had cast an American actress. Javier Bardem smolders in a role perfectly tailored to his heavy-lidded, rumbling-voiced gravitas. He never has a huge chance to do much other than project a raw sexual appeal, but he's very strong throughout. The real story here is Penelope Cruz.
As the temperamental (to say the least) Maria Elena, ex-wife of Bardem's character, she is a force of nature. She performs excellently in both English and Spanish here, and I've never seen her act with such fluidity and grace. Maria Elena could have been a shrieking harpy, but somehow Cruz lets us identify with the character's essence - a woman who operates solely on the direction of her emotional compass. She shrieks and she storms around, but she's always mysterious and she always attracts. I just wish that she had been showcased more in her final scene, but that's what good supporting acting is - when an actor or actress leaves you wanting more. It is a spiky, tangy and exotic performance - she's absolutely excellent here.
An ideal date movie if you really want to get that certain someone in the sack - this film is an aphrodisiac.