by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & ith more than three dozen films to his credit, Woody Allen has had quite a record of ups and downs, highs and lows, especially in the latter third of his career. The last one I could safely say I enjoyed all the way through was Sweet and Lowdown, almost a decade ago. Even with Match Point, which many critics mark as a return to form for Allen, it was obvious that he was borrowing from himself, specifically from the plotline of his superb Crimes and Misdemeanors from a decade earlier.

But with the clunkily titled Vicky Cristina Barcelona (the first two names are the main characters, the third is the setting), he's fashioned an original tale that zooms in on human foibles about love, while retaining a light atmosphere in a story that easily could have veered into tragic territory.

Vicky (American-accented British actress Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Allen troupe member Scarlett Johansson) are longtime pals who decide to summer in Barcelona, where soon-to-be-married Vicky will research Catalan life, and Cristina, a "short film maker who's between films," will likely continue her string of bad-luck flings with the next man who crosses her path.

And before you can say "lothario," Cristina sets her eyes and mind on Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a local painter who truly believes he's God's gift to women -- and that every woman is entitled to a piece of him. Cristina cares not that Juan Antonio supposedly has a "fiery temper" or that things might've gotten physically rough between him and his long-gone ex-wife Maria Elena.

But Juan Antonio is interested in both Vicky and Cristina, and he brazenly introduces himself -- his eyes shifting back and forth between them -- to "come away with me for the weekend," to enjoy life.

It's from that moment, through a stormy plane ride (Juan Antonio, of course, pilots the craft) and on to all kinds of emotional confusion, that Woody charts his characters' paths. His story is one of people who can't control their emotions. Everyone just wants to be happy, but no one knows how.

Because things get so complex (there are other key characters popping in and out), Woody has chosen the device of a straight-speaking, emotionless narrator (voice of Christopher Evan Welch) to guide us along. There's a bit much of it, and at one point it threatens to become intrusive. But the script later adds the characters' inner thoughts to the narrator's words, slowly and subtly turning him into one of the most important parts of the film.

It's hard to tell exactly who is at the center of the story (and even harder to root for any one person since they're all so mixed up) because the focus keeps shifting. When the man-hungry Cristina is temporarily knocked out of the Juan Antonio action due to food poisoning (or is it her nervous ulcer?), the initially repulsed Vicky agrees to go sightseeing with him, then lightens up and relaxes, then... no, she can't get involved; she's got a fianc & eacute; at home, and she's determined to be happy with him, even though he's made of vanilla and doesn't know the meaning of the word "spontaneity."

Or maybe we should be paying more attention to Juan Antonio, a man who's incredibly sure of himself and his sexuality, until he gets a late-night phone call informing him that Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who has been out of his life for some time, is in trouble and needs his help.

Cruz's appearance, late in the film, shoots everything up to a whole new level of interest. Whether you'll be laughing or squirming at the portrayal of Juan Antonio and Maria Elena's relationship is up to your own sense of humor. (I was doing both.) Let's just say that she's bonkers -- she's one big, ever-shifting mood swing -- and he converts into a man who suddenly and believably loses a great deal of swagger.

It all becomes a tale of a long "hot" summer, wrapped up in insightful dialogue and a happily inescapable breeziness. For those with lurid interests, there's a kiss that hints at lesbian desire. But c'mon, folks, Vicky Cristina is a PG-13-rated Woody Allen film -- and considered among his recent work, it's a standout.


Rated PG-13

Written and directed by Woody Allen

Starring Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz