People I know have strong reactions to the films — all two of them — of Whit Stillman. The 42-year-old writer-director is so like himself and so not like anyone else in his choice of subject matter (preppies in evolution) and writing style (wordy, analytical) that you either like his stuff or you don’t. I like his stuff. I like his droll, almost dinner-roll dry sense of humor. I liked the Jane Austenish acuity beneath the surface sociology of his 1990 debut, Metropolitan. And I like that Stillman is not afraid to talk about NATO, international trade, sexual timidity, and the ethics of loyalty and betrayal in Barcelona .
A couple of the same unfamous actors who appeared in his first film return in this story, which is, approximately, about the political and romantic maturing of two American cousins in Spain in the early ’80s. Taylor Nichols, the narrator of Metropolitan, plays Ted, a quiet grind of a company man with idiosyncratic religious, political, and sexual beliefs (he resolves only to go out with ”plain or even rather homely women”) whose life is shaken up by the arrival of his overbearing, livelier cousin, Fred (Chris Eigeman, an overbearing Metropolitanite). Against Ted’s preferences, Fred, an advance man for the Sixth Fleet, moves into his cousin’s apartment. Against Ted’s inclinations (which are for reading the Bible hidden inside a copy of The Economist), the two get embroiled in the political and social life of that terrifically stylish city.
Barcelona is a satisfying next step after Metropolitan. Stillman is funnier, his canvas is bigger, and he keeps better track of his cast, which includes Mira Sorvino as a cool Barcelonan girlfriend and Tushka Bergen (Swing Kids) as a pretty woman who proves Ted’s point about the benefits of homeliness. At his weakest, Stillman tends toward uninflected wordiness for the sake of yakking. Still, the pleasures of a guy not afraid to turn offbeat political and sexual ideas into art are not to be underrated. B+