'Vicky Cristina Barcelona': they really should have stayed in America, or better still, Woody Allen's imagination. On paper this film has it all: a great cast; a famous and celebrated writer-director; sumptuous locations in Barcelona, Oviedo and their environs. Sadly, however, an extremely poor script - by Woody Allen's superb standards - make this a very forgettable effort from the New Yorker.

The story centres on two young American women: Vicky (Hall) and Cristina (Johansson). These two ladies - who are best friends but also complete opposites - are invited by relations of Vicky's to spend a summer with them in Barcelona. Vicky is finishing her thesis on Catalan culture and Cristina is a spur-of-the-moment, carefree character who would jump at any such opportunity to travel.

The ladies begin to settle into their life in Barcelona, their hosts showing them around the town and introducing them to the cultural aspects of the city. At an art gallery Cristina spots a swarthy, handsome painter, Antonio (Bardem), whom we are told has just broken up with his extremely volatile wife. Cut to a restaurant where Cristina catches eyes with Antonio across the room. The roguish artist invites the two ladies to travel with him to Oviedo and to partake in eating, drinking, merrymaking and carnal knowledge.

When the girls question his motives, Antonio replies: "Life is short, life is dull, life is full of pain. This is a chance for something special." This film is absolutely not "something special".

'Vicky Cristina Barcelona', as one would expect from Woody Allen, then twists and turns its way through a rollercoaster of break-ups and make-ups as the central characters strive to find happiness and the right person to share their lives with. Essentially, Bardem is the fulcrum for these attempts at love and by turns he seduces all of those beautiful women that populate his life - leading to mixed messages and bohemian love entanglements.

The central characters are all horribly stereotyped and although they are given interesting dialogue, fail to arouse much empathy. The most frustrating aspect of the film is that there are flashes of great acting that threaten to take over the screen but then fail to ignite. The audience I shared this screening with all seemed to will the script to improve and tittered at moments, but, like watching a struggling football team, seemed to realise the effort was doomed to end in failure.

Love and the search for that emotion is the premise of the film but as complications arise between Antonio, Vicky, Cristina, Antonio's ex-wife, Vicky's fiancée and Vicky's relatives - yes, there are a lot of unsatisfied people in this film - one doesn't really care too much about whether they attain love or not. I hasten to add that Johansson, Bardem and Hall all do as much with their characters as possible, but are scuttled by the script's ultimate lack of poignancy.

In addition to poor dialogue, the film is propelled along by a torridly unfunny narration. To make matters worse, the narration is crucial to driving the plot and filling in the characters' feelings. This comes across as a very poor device that seems almost tacked on after filming to try to spice up the dreary plot.

The main talking point of this film is Penelope Cruz's performance as Antonio's ex-wife Maria Elena. While some may view her performance as over-the-top and melodramatic, in my opinion, she is the film's saving grace. First appearing on screen halfway into the story, Cruz proceeds to act the rest of the cast off it: her performance has clever lines, delivered with passion and a vitality lacking from the rest of the production. A fine actress, whose performance here echoes other great turns in 'Blow' and 'Volver'. Her Oscar nod is understood.

Another mention must go to Chris Messina as Vicky's preppy fiancée. He is truly, truly annoying as the straight-up, white collar representation of wealthy America.

Allen is undoubtedly one of the great comic writers of his generation - 'Annie Hall', 'Manhattan' and 'Manhattan Murder Mystery' are but a few of his filmic comic gems. This script is desperately far from his luminary best: it lacks the rapier wit and truly dynamic character interaction that so many of his films possess.

In short, this is a huge disappointment and plays too many bum notes. There is better fare on screens around the country at present. For those not die-hard Woody Allen fans, this is one to avoid.

Tadhg Peavoy