MOVIE REVIEW : A Distinctive Voice in ‘Barcelona’ : Clever dialogue highlights Whit Stillman’s feature about two American cousins in Spain.
“Barcelona” is only Whit Stillman’s second feature, but he has already staked out a territory and a sensibility quite his own. Arch, eccentric romantic comedies that manage to be delicately off-balance without ever falling, Stillman’s films are as unmistakable as his buttoned-down Brooks Brothers name.
Stillman’s first film as a writer-director, “Metropolitan,” was that rare $300,000 movie that was admired enough to be nominated for an Oscar (for best original screenplay). A knowing look into the improbable universe of New York’s youthful socialites, it revealed how well Stillman knows his people and how cleverly he can reproduce their line of chat, gifts that “Barcelona” more than confirms.
Once again, Stillman is back in WASP World, where “I don’t care for your tone” is considered a killing retort and it’s obvious, without even looking, that people are wearing wingtips or Weejuns. This time around his characters grew up in the Midwest, not Manhattan, and they’re far from home in Barcelona, but the way they talk is still unmistakable.
And it is Stillman’s ear for their kind of glib, slightly exaggerated conversation, for articulate upper-crust dialogue that is withering and ironic by turns, that marks him as that rarity among filmmakers, someone with a voice to call his own.
It is characteristic of Stillman’s quirky sensibility that he claims that the original notion for “Barcelona” came to him when, after seeing the Richard Gere-Debra Winger film “An Officer and a Gentleman,” he decided to make a film about two people, one an officer and the other a gentleman.
It is the gentleman, Ted Boynton (Taylor Nichols), who narrates “Barcelona” in an engagingly querulous voice-over. The local representative for a Chicago-based manufacturing company, Ted is a bit priggish, with a passionate Dale Carnegie-inspired belief in the culture of sales. Likely, if left alone, to spend his evenings simultaneously reading the Old Testament and shuffling around his apartment to the sounds of Glenn Miller’s “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” Ted has to be considered an unlikely protagonist.
Attached though he is to his quiet life, Ted finds it permanently disrupted when his cousin Fred, a Naval officer on special assignment from the Sixth Fleet and the kind of guest who, as Ted says, begins to stink on the first day, comes to town and moves in.
Fred, energetically played by Chris Eigeman, is one of those impossible people who are just amusing enough to prevent their friends from killing them. A self-absorbed freeloader who has never considered that he might be wrong or someone else might be right, Fred is the kind of arrogant individual who thinks changing the “No” to “Si” on anti-American graffiti is making an important socio-political statement.
The graffiti are around because “Barcelona” is carefully set “in the last decade of the cold war,” when anti-Americanism was pervasive enough to lead to political violence. It was also a time when the sexual revolution, almost out of fashion in America, had become a way of life in Spain, causing one young woman to seriously say, “I don’t want to go to bed with just anyone anymore. I have to be attracted to them sexually.”
Aside from driving Ted crazy by starting rumors that he wears painful leather straps on his underwear, Fred does have a positive effect on his cousin’s social life. Though Ted has just about taken a vow to date nothing but “plain or rather homely girls” as a protest against the cult of attractiveness, he is soon going out with the glamorous Monserrat (Tushka Bergen) while Fred escorts the equally attractive Marta (Mira Sorvino).
Well-mannered and well-brought-up, Ted and Fred think they know what they’re about, both in terms of the sensibilities of the city and the psyches of women. But it is one of the themes of “Barcelona” that in reality they are over their heads on all counts, more the “big, unsophisticated children” the Spaniards consider them to be than they’d ever like to admit.
As veterans of “Metropolitan,” both Nichols and Eigeman handle Stillman’s quirky dialogue exceptionally well, and Bergen and Sorvino are so adept it’s a surprise to realize neither one is Spanish. As for the director, his personal connections to Barcelona, a city he lived in for years, gives the film a special integrity. Stillman simply sees the world differently than anyone else, and “Barcelona” underlines that that’s what originality is all about.
* MPAA rating: PG-13 for drug content and a brief sex scene. Times guidelines: It includes a scene of violence, but overall it is a remarkably chaste film.
Taylor Nichols: Ted Boynton
Chris Eigeman: Fred Boynton
Tushka Bergen: Monserrat
Mira Sorvino: Marta
Pep Munne: Ramon
Hellena Schmied: Greta
A Castle Rock Entertainment presentation, released by Fine Line Features. Director Whit Stillman. Producer Whit Stillman. Screenplay Whit Stillman. Cinematographer John Thomas. Editor Christopher Tellefsen. Costumes Edi Giguere. Music Mark Suozzo. Production design Jose Maria Botines. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
* In limited release in Southern California.