Penelope Cruz Saves Woody Allen

It’s not quite a fair headline, but it got your attention. I don’t know if Penelope Cruz has actually saved Woody Allen, but the famed director of many classic films was very smart in his casting of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s sexy muse as a comically crazed ex-wife in his new film, “Vicky Christina Barcelona.”

Cruz, nominated for the best actress Oscar two years ago in “Volver,” is a lock for a best supporting nomination this time around as Maria Elena, the wacky gun-brandishing ex-wife of the ladies-man central character played by Javier Bardem in Allen’s new film.

Allen, taking a page from Almodovar, has taken two of that filmmaker’s biggest stars, added his own — Scarlett Johansson — and just enough New York-type Woody Allen references to keep everyone in the theater very alert. (There’s actually a character named Tabachnik, which is also a Kosher food brand. Hello, Woody!)


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The result is Allen’s funniest movie since “Manhattan Murder Mystery” and “Bullets Over Broadway” in the mid 1990s. It’s simple, straightforward and hilarious, with all the actors working at their highest levels, no one mimicking Allen’s delivery and Cruz stealing the film when she enters almost half way through the picture.

What a pleasure to see Allen in this milieu. Of course, you could argue that the main plot point of the film has been the fantasy of his lead characters for years yet unattainable: a handsome man involved in a three-way love affair with two gorgeous women. If this had happened to Alvy Singer in “Annie Hall” it would have blown his mind. Instead, Bardem’s Juan Antonio is so suave that he manages to talk Johansson and Cruz into it. And yes, the two women do share a sexy kiss that indicates they have had their own dalliance.

If anything, the triangle seemed like the updated, racier version of the Sam Waterston-Carrie Fisher-Dianne Wiest subplot from “Hannah and Her Sisters.” Waterston’s architect could never have suggested this get-together in 1986. But two decades later, Bardem doesn’t flinch at making the suggestion.

Only it’s a little more complicated than that: Cruz’s character (Christina) is not part of the original equation. Scarlett and her buddy, played by sensational newcomer Rebecca Hall (Vicky), are staying in Barcelona for the summer. (Hall is no relation to Annie, but the real life daughter of Sir Peter, the British director.) Vicky is engaged to be married and worried about settling for middle class life in Bedford Hills, N.Y. Christina aspires to be a sexyako adventurer who longs to avoid cliches. Their hostess is played by family friend Patricia Clarkson, ravishing and spot-on as always. Kudos to Chris Messina and Kevin Dunn in less-flashy, but important, roles.

It’s these two whom Bardem wants, but then the whole thing gets very complicated. And just when this math problem looks solved, into the picture storms Cruz. Allen has written an inside joke for her since the beautiful witty Cruz is known for feeling more comfortable speaking in Spanish onscreen rather than English.

She immediately sends herself up, and her chemistry with Bardem is off the charts. Allen is smart enough to see that, so he’s written Johansson a wise-beyond-her-years young woman who knows enough to get out of the way of this combustible couple. Even Hall’s fresh-scrubbed naif gets the clues right away. And that’s what makes “Vicky Christina Barcelona” so enjoyable: No one is stupid or out of the loop. There’s great respect for the characters and the audience. You can just sit back and enjoy a fun ride.

“Vicky Christina Barcelona” is not “Hannah and Her Sisters”; it’s not epic. In the Allen canon it falls into what I think of as the short story world of gems that includes “Radio Days,” “Small Time Crooks,” “Manhattan Murder Mystery” and “A Midnight Summer’s Sex Comedy.”

For Allen, who digressed with the near-perfect “Match Point” and has taken some other odd turns in the last decade, “VCB” feels like not a return to roots but maybe the leap forward he’s been searching for in comedy. It certainly bodes well for the New York-set romantic comedy he’s shooting now. Nicely, nicely done.