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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 12, 1994


Whit Stillman
Chris Eigeman;
Taylor Nichols;
Mira Sorvino;
Tushka Bergen
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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The characters in Whit Stillman’s universe are smart, but that doesn’t seem to help them much. In his 1990 debut, “Metropolitan,” and now the delightfully astute “Barcelona,” they theorize and rationalize and debate, but still, they can’t help making fools of themselves.

With “Barcelona,” Stillman seems to have slipped past the sophomore jinx with studied ease. Not only is this droll comedy of manners about Americans abroad launched on a richer, grander scale than his highly praised first effort, but Stillman also seems to have taken some giant steps forward as a filmmaker. Unlike “Metropolitan,” which for all its brittle wit seemed clunky and stagebound, “Barcelona” is sharply paced and alive on the screen.

Still, this distinctive writer-director’s forte is words. In an age when people aren’t sure why they do what they do, Stillman’s characters are always explaining themselves to themselves and dreaming up new philosophies to live by. The picture’s central character, Ted (Taylor Nichols), is a sales representative with an American firm in the Catalan capital who has determined that he has a serious romantic obsession problem. As he explains to his cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), a naval officer who’s come ashore as an advance man for an upcoming NATO visit, he’s a sort of prisoner of feminine beauty. Whenever he meets an attractive woman, he’s so distracted by her physical charms that he plunges in without bothering to ascertain whether she has any real depth.

This curse, he says, causes him to hook up with the wrong women and mess up his life, and so he pledges to correct the situation by going out only with “plain or perhaps even homely girls.” Maybe then he can look past the physical exterior and into their eyes and see their souls. Naturally, Fred laughs right in his face.

Stillman’s literate style has been compared to Fitzgerald and Austen, but his films actually come across more as a cockeyed marriage of Chekhov and P.G. Wodehouse. The people in “Barcelona”—especially Ted and Fred—are intensely weird and far too self-absorbed to be very likable. Ted, who follows the teachings of business and self-improvement gurus as if they were sacred texts, is one of the most hilarious examples of yuppie earnestness the movies have yet produced. Ted is deeply conservative in all things. He thinks everything through to the point of ridiculousness, pondering deeply over whether marketing is actually a science, or whether he is really cut out for sales. For romantic advice, he goes to the Bible, which he hides inside a copy of the Economist.

Though friends since childhood, Ted and Fred don’t seem to like each other much. When they hit the town together, Fred, who has a wickedly perverse streak, can’t resist telling Ted’s date that his cousin is a follower of the Marquis de Sade and that under his clothes he’s wearing tightly bound straps of leather.

Ted’s resolution to reform himself barely lasts through the night. Within days, Fred has taken up with Marta (Mira Sorvino) and Ted’s fallen in love with Monserrat (Tushka Bergen), a lithe blonde who plans to move in with him until her boyfriend convinces her that all Americans are fascist pigs. After partying, America-bashing appears to be Barcelona’s principal spectator sport, and, as Yankees, the cousins are constantly defending their homeland.

Fred, in particular, gets steamed over these attacks, but that only makes matters worse and, in the end, gets him shot as a spy. With Fred lying in a coma, Ted maintains an around-the-clock vigil, praying by Fred’s bedside and reading excerpts from “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “War and Peace.”

Drawing primarily from the same pool of unknown talent he used on “Metropolitan,” Stillman pulls confident, polished performances from all his actors. The women in “Barcelona” don’t have much to say, but at the same time, they are remarkably self-possessed as they torture the men with their haughty air of blank superiority. In particular, Nichols is brilliant as the neurotically self-flagellating Ted, and with his sullen crankiness, Eigeman makes for a perfect foil. His deadpan delivery is used to greatest effect when he gives a topsy-turvy view of the ending of “The Graduate” in which, he says, the girl’s marriage to this perfectly wonderful guy is disrupted by this awful Dustin Hoffman person, who crashes the ceremony and drags her off. “On a bus, no less.”

At moments like this, “Barcelona” rises to a level of divine strangeness. Stillman’s vision is suave and brainy and, at the same time, pixilated. With only two movies under his belt, Stillman has already established himself as a genuine auteur.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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