Late, or medium late Allen (Woody-type) is turning out to be a particularly sophisticated phase in the director's career. With 'Match Point' being a pretty potent version of 'Crime and Punishment' themes (I saw it in a small town in Sweden, and the audience was just as respectful as they would be for Bergman or Troell), 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona', powered by its three starring muses, is a wonderful contribution to the cinema of the personal-level short story, told in layers.
Perhaps this picture stands out as particularly admirable because of its comparative rarity: character development is equal with story-telling. Even the scenery is secondary, though it is a welcome ornament. Many filmmakers today deliberately avoid getting too 'scenic' in location-shot films, as if they are too cool to stoop to mere situational grounding, as that would give too much clarity and suppress cleverness. 'Slumdog Millionaire' which is a remarkable film, nevertheless missed the boat as far as capturing Bombay is concerned, as most of its scenes could have been shot in any large Indian city.
But Barcelona is just too tempting to resist, and Woody provides just the right doses of locale to support his characters and story. And the characters! Predictably (and happily) you can depend on Woody's characters to be attractive - at least physically. Three of the most fetching women in pictures today are in it, and Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, and Penélope Cruz have never looked better. Plus, their craft ain't bad, either. But there's a flaw: not enough Cruz! Her role, Oscar-winner that it is, is comparatively brief. Almódovar knows how to use her (e.g. 'Volver'), and now, so does Woody, but more, baby, MORE!
As the sole and pivotal male in this ménage à quatres of sorts, Javier Bardem holds his own with Cruz, Hall and Johansson, and indeed, he might be considered the star of the picture.
More than ever, Allen is a true auteur - one of the few active in film today. As contemporary audiences have basically lost their way in appreciating auteur-authored films, Allen's audiences and box office and production deals have shrunk, but into a size that in no way inhibits his creativity, while in fact it is enhanced. He also wisely chose to go overseas for locations, into more inviting and sympathetic surroundings. (He's doing more London-based films.)
'VCB' need not be pigeonholed as 'a Woody Allen film'. It is an original work, and it leaves you with unique thoughts.