Bright talk makes 'Barcelona' one of the year's best movies

August 12, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Who does this Whit Stillman think he is?

Where did he get permission?

He actually has made a movie about a Republican and a naval officer.

Worse, he's made a movie about a Republican businessman who believes in God, the culture of salesmanship as it represents capitalism at its most useful to society. And a naval officer who believes in his country and his service.

Even more radical still, his Republican businessman is sober, decent, bright, concerned, utterly honorable and absorbed with moral issues. His naval officer is earnest, stupid but weirdly brave.

Whit Stillman is obviously the most dangerous man in America.

"Barcelona," Stillman's new film, which opens today at the Rotunda, is also sheer pleasure. Stillman, whose first film, "Metropolitan," only suggested the possibilities that "Barcelona" embraces, has tapped into and penetrated a subculture previously unobserved (except by himself in "Metropolitan," of course). He is to WASPs as perhaps Philip Roth is to Jews, Ernest Hemingway to soldiers, and Herman Melville to whales: their most intense chronicler, their most honest interlocutor, their most brilliant exegete.

The time is the mid-'80s, in the lovely Spanish city of the title, and poor Ted Boynton is trying to be good and to do good. Ted, played by the same Taylor Nichols who so gracefully inhabited the center of "Metropolitan," is not a natural salesman -- one of those hand-pumping, greasy manipulators -- but a true believer in the system of capitalism, its grace and beauty and justice; he worships Dale Carnegie and Og Mandino. Against his contemplative nature, he forces himself to sell each day, the representative of a Midwestern industrial concern whose products go unspecified.

His life is ordered: He quests after women at night, but never crudely, waffling on the issue of beauty vs. soul; he attends to his profession and he studies the Bible, sometimes while dancing to big band music. Most important, he tries, as WASPs must, to keep his unruly emotions under stern control. Duty haunts him like a cheap tune he can't stop humming.

Suddenly, in slovenly Lieutenant Junior Grade's blues, who should show up but his cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), lanky, imperious, demanding but irritatingly sloppy in certain areas. Fred, billing himself as an "advance man for the Sixth Fleet," moves in and immediately begins borrowing clothes, money, liquor and phone numbers, none of which he'll ever return. (In Fred's mind, there's not much technical difference between a "loan" and a "gift.") Ted is on the horns of a delicate WASP dilemma: loyalty to blood or self. Naturally, like any WASP, he moves swiftly to deal with it by pretending it doesn't exist.

Unaddressed, the conflict expresses itself in infantile ways. Fred and Ted become Fred and Ethel.

Bicker, bicker, bicker. Stillman's true comic gift is for charting the subtext of the most delicate irrational anger under the most polite of conversations. Ted and Fred go so far back (Fred wrecked Ted's kayak at "the Lake," all WASPs having a place called "the Lake" in their background) that they know all each other's tricks. They politely detest each other, and the sniping begins instantly, in the WASP way, over symbolic, never actual, turf. Think of any act of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" as filmed through shrouds of filigreed damask, wicker, linen and genuine Harris tweed, and you'll have some idea of the muted needling that is "Barcelona's" most vivid charm.

As a comedy team, the studious, intense Nichols and the callow, grating Eigeman are the best thing this side of Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon in "The Client." They clash by nightclub, they clash by streetside, no issue being too microscopic to escape contention. In fact, the smaller the stakes the better.

Meanwhile, other intrusions wander in. Both men are seeking women, and the newly liberated (General Franco is still dead, remember) Spanish young women find them amusing but are a little baffled by their earnestness and their insistence that they actually be in love before they make love. Then there's an irritating anti-American intellectual named Ramon who blames all the world's ills on the notorious American agency known as the AFL-CIA, which seems to follow them around. Eventually, the politics get ugly, when terrorists go after them.

Underneath the genial humor, Stillman is actually interested in that rarest of values in American films, character. He's laughing at his main characters and enjoying their callow follies, but he never condescends to them: You feel his love for them and something akin to respect. They may not "get it," and they're about as hip as the Bass Weejuns and wingtips they wear everywhere, but they have odd, endearing streaks of stubborn courage.

"Barcelona" is the rare American movie in which people actually talk instead of banter or wisecrack. It chews on ideas, and much like its awkward heroes, what it lacks in grace it makes up for in pTC earnestness and its own rugged character. It's one of the best movies of the year.

"Barcelona"

Starring Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman

Directed by Whit Stillman

Released by Fine Line/Castle Rock

Rated R

*** 1/2

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