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Scarlett Johansson, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Victor Bello/TWC 2008

Review in a Hurry: Woody Allen returns to what he does best—dry, character-based comedy—in this smart, unpredictable alternative to summer blockbusters.

The Bigger Picture: By now you've heard about the all-way sex between Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson in Allen's latest outing. As it should be. The carnal scenes in Vicky Cristina Barcelona don't offer much in the way of flesh, but the Spanish sun is hot, and the actors are even hotter, and the threesome manage to emit plenty of steam through playful touches and randy glances.

The story begins when two disparate babes arrive together in Barcelona for a summer of wine drinking and Gaudi-gazing. Vicky (Rebecca Hall), a concave tower of bristling repression, is engaged to be married and seemingly uninterested in lusty dalliances. Meanwhile, Cristina (Johansson), with her bleached-blond hair and restless eyes, is practically a homing beacon for hookups.

But it isn't until local artist Juan Antonio (Bardem), all Latin languidness, walks over to their restaurant table one evening, offering to whisk them away to a another Spanish town for a weekend of music and art and lovemaking, that's when the story really starts to tango.

After a few establishing trysts, the plot is notched up again with the arrival of Juan Antonio's ex-wife, the human hair trigger Maria Elena (Cruz), fresh from the hospital after a failed suicide attempt and ready to throw some of her own hotness around. Her very first frame establishes her as sort of hypersexualized, semiferal house cat—wild, damaged, charming, ready to chase and be chased. Bardem's insecure artist can't seem to get past her. And, after a few weeks, neither can Cristina.

Cristina openly admits that she isn't sure what she wants in life, which can translate into murky motives for the rest of us, and her acting seems strangely distant when pitted against her veteran costars. Still, Allen fans may emit a sigh of relief between horny panting fits; this is a comedy, and a clear return to form for the legendary writer-director, who has strayed into sexual thrillers and crime dramas in recent years.

The dry dialogue is back, with Bardem offering lines like, "Perhaps you will better understand your feelings after we have made love." Also back is the casual, quasi-improvised quippage that is the hallmark of any good Allen picture. Populating his romantic Barcelona with characters as magnetic and nuanced as they are flawed, Allen has delivered a subtle, funny story as good as any of his more recent comedies.

The 180—a Second Opinion: There's almost too much plot here, with at least three couples—three and a half, technically—wrestling with what they want out of love, relationships and commitment. Get over it, already, people. You're in Barcelona, surrounded by the sexiest people on Earth.