Rebecca Hall and Scarlet Johansson, in

Dir. Woody Allen
(PG-13) ★ ★ ★ ½

Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, my favorite of his films from this underachieving decade of his career, is a romantic comedy about love, but it isn’t romantic about love. It’s too neurotic for that, which is par for the course for the Allen oeuvre. In its gently cynical way, it wonders if there is a right way to love among all the wrong ones.

The leads are established as polar opposites from the first scene. Vicky (radiant Rebecca Hall, who is among my favorite young actresses) is rational to a fault, approaches love with the same practicality, and is engaged to marry a man who is reliable. Cristina (Scarlet Johansson) is passionate, approaches love as an epic struggle, and doesn’t know what she wants, only what she doesn’t want. The women are introduced by an omniscient male narrator who describes their exploits throughout the film, which indicates an unsentimental approach to the material. It places us at an objective distance from these women and emphasizes Allen’s theme: love is confounding, from any approach.

Vicky and Cristina spend the summer in Barcelona (my suggested title for a South American sequel: Vicky Cristina Bossa Nova), and they are quickly propositioned by suave Spanish painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who would like to whisk them away for sightseeing and lovemaking. Juan Antonio has a formidable ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who has tried to kill him once and may be inclined to try again, depending on her mood. These four become entangled in various sexual and romantic permutations, but the film is deceptively serious-minded and doesn’t exhibit the wackiness of a farce.

The characters are witty and self-aware. They navigate their relationships the best they can, and when a plan of action doesn’t work, they try something new. In one of the funniest interludes, a frustrated Cristina experiments with a complicated but highly functional three-way romance. And Vicky, the pragmatist, is clever enough to figure out that she needs to let a little spontaneity into her life. When she is tempted to deviate from her course, she says “I’m too scared,” and that’s more perceptive than most characters in romantic comedies are allowed to be about themselves.

What does Allen ultimately decide about love? To call his outlook bleak would overstate it, though to call it hopeful would be generous. One character calls love “transient,” and another claims that the only romantic love is the kind that is unfulfilled. By that standard, the film is very romantic, because its characters are nothing if not unfulfilled. They rationalize, give in, deny, or run away from their feelings, but they’re trying valiantly to make love work for them. One of my favorite quotes about love is from Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it,” said a vampire who wanted to win back his beloved with a love spell. If all else fails, Vicky and Cristina might give that a shot.