The false dichotomy between European hedonism and American psychotherapy aside, Vicky Cristina Barcelona really does live up to the hype as Woody Allen’s best movie since at least Sweet & Lowdown, and the best use of a big-name cast since Husbands and Wives (I worried that Patricia Clarkson would head down the same road as Claire Bloom, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Uma Thurman, until Allen lets her gobble a scene or two in the last third). To continue the superlatives, it’s also got, in Penelope Cruz, the most intense performance in an Allen project since Judy Davis’ in H&W. With long (dark) unkempt hair, a snarl that looks blowtorched, shouting Spanish imprecations, she’s mercurial and brilliant, eyes ever on the alert for a slight or for a possibility — any possibility. When she enters, she turns an okay movie into a very good one. Allen is such a didactic filmmaker that he casts Scarlet Johansson in as (blond) mercurial counterpoint, the American kind. Her chemistry with Javier Bardem redeems nearly every musty idea about art and libertinism they’re forced to utter; Bardem’s thick eyeballs, heavy with erotic languour, soften the thud of lines praising wine and love that are the equivalent of September‘s “Let’s go to the city — I want to catch that Kurosawa film festival” routine. Even Woody’s rehash of the Mary Beth Hurt wheeze from Interiors — the absurd archetype of a woman whose mere talent and sensitivity inhibits her from artistic expression — is in Johansson’s hands kinda charming; he pokes gentle fun of her while shooting her ravishingly. This is the first movie in which her heavy-footedness and limited acting chops are an asset. Never mind what Armond White tells you: Eric Rohmer never had the fortune of shooting Johansson and Cruz on a hillside picnic, beneath an overcast sky.