Whit Stillman's debut film, Metropolitan, made many a top-10 list in 1990. With its nuanced, self-aware and hyper-verbal characters, it displayed an it's-so-old-that-it's-new charm. For sheer degree of difficulty, Metropolitan may have posed the most daunting filmmaking challenge of the year: how to make us care about preppies (or HUBs, the "Haute Urbane Bourgeoisie," as one character had it) who are just trying to make it to the next party. It worked. I hadn't been so charmed by the doings of rich folk in quite a while.
Stillman offers welcome reminders of Metropolitan in his current film, Barcelona. Again he's exploring the doings of befuddled, but comfortable, Americans wandering along a city's party trail. Two of his major Metropolitan performers, Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman, are back in roles that feel like reprises. Nichols plays Ted, a charmingly repressed sales representative from Chicago who's adrift in the Mediterranean splendor of Barcelona. Though Ted, whose idea of fun is studying the Book of Proverbs while dancing to big band music, tries to lead a cautious and celibate life, his cousin Fred (Eigeman), on leave from the Sixth Fleet, leads him back into the carnal fields.
The story is set during "the last decade
of the Cold War," during which Spain was intensely debating, and roundly rejecting, the presence of NATO forces -- i.e. American troops. So the cousins' romantic misadventures are played out before a background of comic political tension that includes anti-American terrorist acts.
The influence of Spanish filmmakers is evident here. (Stillman has lived in Barcelona since 1980.) When USO offices are dynamited by a never-seen bomber, Bunuel's similarly explosive That Obscure Object of Desire comes to mind. And the film's bubbly mix of drug-fueled decadence and romantic navete echoes Almodovar.
But Stillman, himself a New York HUB, has a sensibility closer to that of Henry James than madcap Pedro, and it's his Ted's repression that wins out. The film's farcical elements are kept on a simmer rather than a boil, so its final sweetness, while pleasant enough, doesn't feel altogether earned.
Any movie filmed in this most beautiful of cities will be visually compelling, and Barcelona is no exception. Stillman is at his best when he shows the young Americans caught between the splendor of the town and the ugliness of its anti-Americanism and general insularity.
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But the movie is almost all surface.
While it offers a consistent, low-key pleasure, and occasional moments that deliver a true jolt, Barcelona goes wide rather than deep. It finally feels less satisfying than Stillman's debut. But for that matter, most films would, and Barcelona is well worth a look.
Written and directed by Whit Stillman. With Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman.