a) a brilliant and subtle comment on how flat, vague, and remote we are, despite (or maybe because of) our ability to travel, observe, create, and socialize
b) a flat, vague movie written and acted with too much remove
In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, two friends — Christina (Scarlet Johansson) and Vicky (Rebecca Hall) — fly to Barcelona for a couple of months so that Vicky can gather information for her Master's thesis in Catalan Studies. Christina is (or considers herself?) a free-spirited-bohemian-type who beds every intriguing man she meets. Vicky, on the other hand, seeks commitment and stability; she's engaged to be married to a guy in the U.S. with a lucrative-but-boring job.
The girls, who are staying in Barcelona with Vicky's female relative, Judy (Patricia Clarkson), wind up at an art gallery where they notice a hunky painter named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). Judy tells the girls about Juan Antonio's mysterious ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), and the story of Juan and Maria's freaky, violent relationship.
Later, at a restaurant, Cristina and Vicky spot Juan Antonio at another table. He joins them and proposes they leave in his private plane for a weekend of girl-boy-girl action. Vicky gets offended, Cristina is into it, and surprise!, they do get on that plane, though Vicky is careful to book a separate room for herself and Cristina. Nevertheless, Cristina visits Juan Antonio's room and just when things are about to get intimate, she realizes that she's about to hurl. Food poisoning.
So the next day, while Cristina recovers in bed, Vicky winds up touring the city with Juan Antonio. In the evening they find themselves in a park, where they sit and watch a guitar player. Vicky (who, despite her supposed interest in Catalan culture, speaks no Spanish) is apparently "moved" by the guitar-playing, and this somehow renders her more open to the idea of spending time with Juan-Antonio-the-seductive-cad, and oops!, the two "do it." Afterwards Vicky, upset by her own indiscretion, buries herself in the stacks of the pubic library, doing research for her Catalan Studies thesis.
Cristina, who isn't aware of what has just transpired between Vicky and Juan Antonio, spends the next few evenings in bed with Juan, and she winds up moving in with him. Then Juan's sexy, unstable ex, Maria Elena, shows up, and all kinds of crazy hijinks ensue, including a sexual triangle! When she isn't making out with Maria Elena and Juan Antonio, Cristina spends her days taking mediocre photographs in and around Barcelona, and her photographs arouse in the three of them — Cristina, Juan Antonio, and Maria Elena — a state of artistic synergy, while the three-way sex makes for peace and harmony.
In the meantime, Vicky's boring fiancee decides to fly to Barcelona because he thinks it will be more romantic for he and Vicky to say their vows in Spain than in the U.S. Though Vicky, who still yearns for Juan Antonio, is no longer in a hurry to marry her fiancee, she agrees to this plan. Still, Vicky realizes that what she wants more than anything is to do Juan Antonio one last time.
Luckily for Vicky, Cristina has decided she's not interested in the menage thing anymore, and partly in reaction to Cristina's departure, Maria Elena, too, has abandoned Juan Antonio. As there is no one around to do, Juan jumps at this last-minute opportunity for more sexin'. But before he and Vicky can get down properly, Maria Elena shows up with a gun, and she has a big shooting tantrum, and Vicky realizes that a last-minute affair with Juan Antonio is too crazy and dangerous for her taste.
In the end of the movie Vicky and Cristina leave Barcelona, and we realize that the experience has left them virtually unchanged. Which begs the question: is the entire movie an interesting comment on the inner dullness of the characters, or is it a very bad movie that failed to produce well-rounded characters?
Throughout the movie Johansson's delivery is so ingeniously bland, I find it hard to believe that it wasn't intentional on her part (though after looking into it, I've learned that many consider her a very bad actor). In this movie, it's fascinating that even though she has all the essential ingredients of a sexpot (the bleachy blond hair, the jutting boobs, the gargantuan lips, the low voice), she's about as sexy as meatballs with ketchup. Her friend Vicky, who differs from Cristina in two distinct ways (she's brunette, and she works slightly harder at pretending that she doesn't want to jump in the sack with Juan Antonio), is equally bland. Both characters, however, seem to believe that they have interesting inner qualities: though Cristina says that she never expects to excel at any art form she admires, the movie seems to believe that by not having a passionate interest in anything, she is living outside the rules; and while Vicky has an interest in Catalan culture, her interest originated when she was fourteen years old (she saw a picture of a building designed by Gaudi) and hasn't apparently deepened or expanded much since then, despite her graduate school studies. Maybe there's something about the farcically bouncy little song that opens Maria Cristina Barcelona to suggest the movie isn't meant to be taken literally.
In juxtaposition to Vicky and Cristina, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena have a volatility and passion the two travelers seem to admire, much the way I (perhaps unfairly) imagine Angelina Jolie — or, for that matter, Mia Farrow — admires herself for adopting children from developing countries. If this juxtaposition weren't based in a stereotype — that Spaniards are wild, hot-blooded lovers — then the argument that this movie is meant to be ironic or critical, rather than literal (meaning, bad), would be much easier to defend.
But in my view, the entire movie represents a fantasy Vicky and Cristina would plausibly have, one in which the mere act of flying to another country and spending time there makes the traveler interesting as a human being. The movie implies that the girls believe Juan Antonio's passion (as evidenced by his relationship with his ex-, plus the notion that he is an artist) will rub off on them, simply because they have managed to stir his interest. Juan Antonio's stormy relationship with the suicidal Maria Elena is, in many ways, the kind of romantic story one might expect two shallow, nice-looking young women brought up in the United States would tell themselves.
Neither Cristina nor Vicky makes a lasting impression on anyone else in the film, and though Vicky winds up with a minor flesh wound that will likely heal in a matter of weeks, Barcelona hasn't made much of an impression on them, either. At the heart of this film is a very sad, very cynical idea: elsewhere exists an alternate reality much more dangerous, more exciting, than our own, and by visiting that reality, it's possible to temporarily add some danger to our own lives without risking, venturing, or learning a thing.