the first time Javier Bardem appears in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he's leaning against a wall in an elegant Spanish restaurant. Actually he's prowling, just not moving while doing it. His prey will come to him.
Bardem, playing an oversexed artist named Juan Antonio, appears bored, seeking female companionship to cure that feeling. Any woman will do, but she will be treated as if she's the only woman alive.
Yet Juan Antonio can't resist seducing two women at once, even when a third — his ex-wife on the verge of another nervous breakdown — comes into the picture. Bardem always plays Juan Antonio with an air of carnal que sera, sera: What will be, will be sexy.
Bardem performs without irony or regret, making Juan Antonio one of the few perfect male specimens that writer-director Woody Allen didn't write for dislike. Allen's current Euro-tour of neuroses, through England and now Spain, has quelled his Manhattan insecurities about sex, allowing a maturity on the subject to develop. He's comfortable watching a stud get what the former Woody believed he deserved.
In this case, it's the attention of two American tourists: Vicky (Rebecca Hall, a real find) is uptight and engaged to be married, although Juan Antonio could spoil that. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is her adventurous opposite, an architecture aficionado who likes the way Juan Antonio is built.
That's evident from their first meeting, a scene that can't last long enough, when Bardem strolls to their table and first speaks. The baritone voice that frightened victims in No Country for Old Men is softened, yet sexually intimidating. When he looks at the women, Bardem's eyes are beyond the undressing stage; they droop with sensual awareness, as if he has already ravished them.
But there's more to Juan Antonio's charms. He's also a sensitive listener, ready to twist rejecting comments into come-on compliments. He notices Vicky's and Cristina's lips, comments on their eyes, then slips in an invitation for a menage a trois.
Allen's screenplay steers these characters where you'd expect: into beds between tours of Barcelona's magnificent sights. Vicky's guilt leads to her share of scenes leaning on Juan Antonio's manly chest, while Cristina earns hers while falling in love. The movie remains sexy without provocations, and pleasant on the ear with Allen's stylized dialogue.
That is, until Penelope Cruz arrives as Juan Antonio's former wife, Maria Elena. Allen squeezes a few romantic absurdities from her firecracker performance as a jilted but understanding neurotic. A threesome ensues, mostly off-screen, painting Allen into a corner with a cop-out finale as his only escape.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona isn't high-grade Allen, or even medium-grade Pedro Almodovar, his obvious influence in setting and tone. But it has Bardem offering a primer for any guy seeking action, and not a restraining order.
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.