Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Starring: Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Penelope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson, and Kevin Dunn. Directed by Woody Allen. 96 min. Rated PG-13.

Only seven months after the dead-serious Cassandra’s Dream, Woody Allen is back with film number 38, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which is nearly the opposite in tone. A gentle romance/comedy more than a “romantic comedy” in the usual sense, it traces the adventures of two young women (Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall, who also worked together in The Prestige) on vacation in Spain.

Allen lets us know very early on that Vicky (Hall) is the more “grown-up,” with all the attendant pluses and minuses: She’s engaged to a successful young business type (Chris Messina) and is working on her master’s thesis on Catalan identity.

She’s on track toward a perfect upper-middle-class (or higher) life, but the tracks are too rigid for surprise or adventure.

Cristina, on the other hand, is impetuous, maybe even flighty, driven by romance more than responsibility. Unlike Vicky, who goes to Barcelona to do some research, Cristina (typically) is looking for a new scene after her latest relationship’s breakup. While staying with Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and Mark (Kevin Dunn), an older couple related to Vicky, they are approached by artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who introduces himself and then suggests all three of them have a romantic adventure, capped by a menage-a-trios.

True to form, Vicky is quite understandably dismissive of this come-on; almost as understandably, Cristina is game. Juan Antonio flies them to the village of Oviedo, where beauty and food and wine and music all conspire to create a mood of romantic inevitability. But after Cristina is sidelined, Vicky — who has come along essentially as a chaperone — discovers herself to be a little less controlled and certain about things than she realized.

Still, it’s Cristina who moves in with Juan Antonio, an arrangement that appears threatened when his crazy ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), shows up for an indefinite stay. This unpromising arrangement leads to an unexpected, more complicated set of relationships.

If Hollywood Ending was slightly influenced by Leo McCarey, and Stardust Memories a good deal more than slightly influenced by Federico Fellini’s 8?, then Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels like Allen’s Jules and Jim. Its impact on Vicky Cristina Barcelona is clear right off the bat. The most obvious similarity is the use of an omniscient narrator telling the story — a technique infinitely more common (for obvious reasons) on the page than on the screen: Books tell us stories, while movies are supposed to be all about showing them.

Another reason voiceover narration in film is more often than not obtrusive is because it’s frequently applied after-the-fact to films that have clarity problems — or films that are perceived by doltish studio execs as having clarity problems, as with Blade Runner — which is clearly not the case here.

Still, I have mixed feelings about Allen’s implementation. At first, I kept expecting one of the characters here to eventually be revealed as the narrator. Even after I gave up on that, the technique is problematic: Along with the multiple points of view, it’s the main mechanism keeping us from direct identification with either Vicky or Cristina, let alone Juan Antonio or Maria Elena.

There has already been some criticism of the film’s disconnect from the world the rest of us live in; that is, these people never seem to worry about money and rarely seem to work. The same could be said, of course, of all but the most consciously political comedies of the ’30s and ’40s; they’re not supposed to reflect all the dull, quotidian stuff. Allen has never pretended to be reflecting the lives of the “little people,” except, perhaps, in The Purple Rose of Cairo, which made a point of both the wonder and the absurdity of life up on the screen.

The voiceover gives Vicky Cristina Barcelona the feeling of a fairy tale; while it might take place in a fairy tale world, the story is driven by sometimes unpleasant complexities (not that fairy tales are always pleasant or simple). Vicky and Cristina are obvious stand-ins for warring impulses within most of us, and Allen genially, gently suggests how close opposites can be.