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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 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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Barcelona,” Whit Stillman’s quasi-comedy about Americans in Europe may not be for everyone. It’s all attitude, sophisticated banter and no story. It has plot elements—in that things happen, one after the other. But it’s a static, contemporary comedy of manners, superficially drawn in the tradition of the old upperclass Hollywood comedies—where the locales were exotic and the characters never doffed their dinner jackets.

“ Barcelona” is not a good film but, in fits and starts, it is highly enjoyable. For one thing, it’s a rare thing to spend vicarious time in a beautiful Catalonian city—where setting is so crucial to the movie. For another, it’s pleasurable to listen to characters chatting in droll, quirky paragraphs, rather than the monotonal grunts uttered by bionic superheroes between expensive action scenes. There’s a sense of intelligence here— misapplied perhaps and eventually boring, but often funny.

Set during the early 1980s, “ Barcelona” is about the talkative enmity between Taylor Nichols, a midwestern salesman based in Spain, and Chris Eigeman, his obnoxious cousin from the Navy who visits him unannounced. Nichols, a softspoken preppy from Chicago has two obsessions: sales and men’s unhappy relationships with women. As far as he’s concerned, men have historically ruined their lives by falling in love with physical beauty instead of great character. He is equally determined to better his selling techniques and fall in love with a decent, homely woman.

Out of nowhere, Eigeman (picture a twentysomething version of Major Frank Burns from “M*A*S*H”) barges back into Nichols’s life. The cousins have much history between them—details of which come out in the film’s rapid-fire dialogue. It seems that Eigeman has spent his life borrowing from Nichols (and rarely honoring his debts); and he likes to spout fanciful lies about Nichols, in a well-intentioned attempt to build up Nichols’s standing with women.

For the rest of the movie, Eigeman—an ugly American nonpareil—will irritate his cousin and virtually every Spaniard he comes into contact with. And Nichols, who likes to read the Bible and dance to Glenn Miller (at the same time), will suffer through the experience. It’s a great, almost-sitcom situation and Stillman—in his spare, non-cinematic style—sets it up promisingly. But “ Barcelona” founders, despite all kinds of developments, from leftist terrorist bombings to affairs of the heart, narratively, “ Barcelona” gives itself nowhere to go. Audiences for “ Barcelona” will know who they are. They’ll appreciate how Stillman sympathetically treats his characters who—in most other movies—would be satirically lambasted.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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