Woody Allen's projects aren't films so much as they are changes in the weather: sometimes delightful, sometimes annoying, nothing that anybody says or does can do much to change them, and they occur in a roughly annual cycle. With that in mind (extremely strained metaphor to follow), his latest feature, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is like a warm breeze on a hot summer day, insubstantial as all hell but refreshing and satisfying, relaxing and arousing in equal measure.

Okay, so maybe that last bit doesn't really apply to summer breezes (and anyway, I warned you it was a painful metaphor), but it certainly applies to Allen's 38th film as a director, and the fourth he's produced during his self-imposed exile into Europe. Trading the chilly shores of Great Britain for a tourist's vision of idyllic Spain, the new film is Allen's second best of the decade after 2005's Match Point and easily the most fun movie he's made since at least Small Time Crooks back in 2000; hardly a second coming for a man whose career will obviously never return to the heights of the long-passed 1970s, but a pleasing and fairly smart film that reveals an unexpected willingness on Allen's part to finally stretch beyond endless copying of the triumphs of his middle-age.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall, a young actress best known for her role as Christian Bale's wife in The Prestige) and Cristina (the Woodman's current muse Scarlett Johansson) are two Americans in some hazy post-college state that can be best described as "their mid-twenties" visiting Spain for the summer; in Vicky's case, to study Catalan culture as part of her graduate studies, and in Cristina's to find something beautiful and true in life to give her some kind of direction and meaning. Barcelona is the city where the find themselves as the summer begins, staying with Vicky's aunt Judy (Patricia Clarkson, wonderful as always but wasted in a tiny role), and it really does function as a third character; not perhaps since Manhattan has Allen been so obviously enchanted by the place in which his story occurs. It's a romantic and postcard-perfect vision of the city, I suppose, but that fits the film: Vicky and Cristina are each romantic and callow in their own ways, seduced by the surface of a life far removed from their East Coast intellectual backgrounds.

In Barcelona, the girls meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a painter and bohemian, who seduces them in turn, before things get complicated by the return of his unhinged and possibly homicidal ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz). By the time she shows up, Juan Antonio has bedded and moved in with Cristina, leaving Vicky to fret about her impending marriage to the noble chunk of wood Doug (Chris Messina) while her friend enters into a tenuous but apparently well-balanced polyamorous relationship.

I go back and forth on the question of whether Woody Allen making a mostly nonjudgmental film about a loving and stable three-way is shocking, or a natural outgrowth of his longstanding fascination with the intellectual side of sexual politicking. Because make no mistake, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is far more intellectual than sensual; the much-ballyhooed kisses between Johansson and Cruz occupy less than thirty seconds of the whole film. The film continues the somewhat unfortunate habit that Woody picked up sometime during the '90s, in which the characters are all stand-ins for a philosophical position or debating point, rather than flesh-and-blood humans, and the result is that the movie feels almost like an illustrated gender theory seminar, rather than living drama. At one point Cristina asks Juan Antonio wryly if he's going to take her clothes off or start a panel discussion, and I recall thinking to myself that it was ironic she should bring that up...

But given that limitation, it's surprising how emotionally full Vicky Cristina Barcelona ends up being; thanks mostly to the cast, I have no doubt, who give the material a bit more than it truly deserves (funny how often that seems to happen in Allen's films). Bardem and Cruz are the obvious stand-outs, generating tremendous amounts of gorgeous Spanish heat in every single scene where they start screaming at each other (the film's greatest sin, without question, is how little screentime it devotes to Cruz), but the relatively green Hall is pretty great in the only significant role that feels more human than rhetorical. That Johansson is the weak link is disappointing, but maybe unsurprising; her career has taken a notable dive in the past couple years, and it's apparently brought her talent along with it. But she's still the best she's ever been for Allen, even if she trips up on the arch dialogue he's written for her.

While the script's focus on talking rather than showing is very characteristic of the filmmaker, from all points in his career, there's some flourishes that set it apart from just about every other film he's made - enough so that if you dropped me in front of the movie without knowing what it was, I might not even be able to guess he directed it. Of course, Allen's aesthetic has solidified to the point where any change seems monumental, but Vicky Cristina Barcelona is positively radical for him: besides the predominate use of slightly ironic, mocking narration (provided by Christopher Evan Welch), the film also uses significantly shorter takes than anything I can recall in Allen's career, and a focus on cross-dissolves that I'm certain is unprecedented (has he ever used a dissolve before?). Plus, the cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe (of Talk to Her and The Sea Inside) is actually well-thought out and significant, unheard of in a Woody Allen film; looking somewhat like a sun-washed Almodóvar film, the palette is full of colors muted into shades of gold and yellow. It's these little tricks that I think keeps the film from tipping into full-on harangue mode; it's too ephemeral and coy and pretty to be Serious. Not to mention that the actors do a fine job of treating their dialogue ironically.

All in all, it's kind of the Woody Allen equivalent of a beach read: full of over-thought weighty themes, but light and breezy despite that. August is the absolute perfect time to release this movie, in that respect: it's a completely laid-back work that asks for no real effort and promises no tremendous excitement or insight, but it is mostly fulfilling. Compared to something like the dour Cassandra's Dream from earlier this year, that counts as a success, right?