Barcelona would be, if Whit Stillman had made more than three films and could be accurately categorized, Whit Stillman-lite. The film’s hilarious, with almost every scene ending on a humorous note. These comic moments don’t add up to much. Cousins Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman have a conversation at one point about the lack of critical discussion of text (versus subtext). While one could talk ad nauseam about how Nichols and Eigeman–and their actions–represent the Spanish’s perception of Americans, it–just like their conversation about subtext–is garnish. Barcelona is Stillman’s version of a crowd-pleaser and it’s rather successful as one.
Certain elements of the film–whether it’s Stillman’s way of visualizing flashbacks or emphasizing infatuation with someone looking directly into the camera… and especially Nichols’s narration of the events, which isn’t just illogical in terms of point of view but a very cheap narrative trick to escape non-humorous scenes–don’t work. Nichols is a fine actor and his performance is good, but he’s in no way a protagonist, not even as a joke. Stillman asks a character actor to be Glenn Ford and the result is poor–more confusing is how the viewer is supposed to perceive Nichols. Eigeman is a jerk. He’s very funny, he’s likable, he’s sympathetic, but he’s a jerk. Nichols isn’t funny, isn’t a jerk, but Stillman’s frequently asking the viewer to laugh at him. It’s hard for him to be sympathetic, because the jokes are often on him. Nichols tries his best to play this character, but it doesn’t work out. Stillman gives Eigeman a schtick. It’s like if Laurel and Hardy were Laurel and the other guy. Nichols is the other guy and Stillman doesn’t even know what to do with him. He gets to tell the story, I suppose, but the story should play out instead of being told… something Stillman seems to get by the end, when the narration evaporates.
Stillman does a great job with the location shooting. He rarely treats Barcelona as anything special–there’s one sequence where Nichols gives a disinterested Eigeman a tour, but otherwise Stillman’s passive about the whole thing. The exterior scenes, walking down the street for instance, leave the viewer desperate for a little more time to look around and Stillman doesn’t grant it. There are a couple sumptuous scenes–one at a country house, but the narrative turn of events overshadow any scenery (it’s kind of hard to pay attention to the landscape when one’s eyes are tearing up from laughter), and then one other scene… in America. Barcelona, both as a title and a location, suggest a certain exoticness. Stillman never plays into it and it’s a great choice. His direction, along with the constantly funny dialogue, make the film a joy to watch.
The principal female actors, Tushka Bergen and Mira Sorvino, are both fine. Given their roles, it would have been near impossible for anyone to not do so… unless the performance were really terrible. They’re supposed to be enigmatic and funny and both succeed.
Barcelona‘s a great time. It’s definitely pandering (Stillman certainly didn’t flex any artistic muscles here), but it’s good pandering.
Written, produced and directed by Whit Stillman; director of photography, John Thomas; edited by Christopher Tellefsen; music by Mark Suozzo; production designer, José María Botines; released by Fine Line Features.
Starring Chris Eigeman (Fred Boynton), Taylor Nichols (Ted Boynton), Tushka Bergen (Montserrat), Mira Sorvino (Marta), Pep Munné (Ramon), Thomas Gibson (Dickie Taylor) and Jack Gilpin (The Consul).