Writer-director Whit Stillman hasn't made many movies—three in 12 years, and none since 1998—but his work has been as accomplished, stylistically distinctive, and fundamentally humane as that of his filmmaking contemporaries Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe. Stillman's most charming work remains his 1990 debut Metropolitan, which found humor and enchantment in the specific experience of finding and losing a seemingly perfect circle of friends. But his best overall film is his second, 1994's more ambitious Barcelona, in which Stillman regulars Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman play cousins with confusingly similar names (Ted and Fred), but opposed personalities. On the commentary track of the new DVD edition, Stillman admits that the inspiration for the film came in part from his wondering what would happen if An Officer And A Gentleman were about two people. Nichols serves as his gentleman, an American salesman stationed in Spain in the early '80s, and Eigeman plays a Navy officer who stays with his cousin while on a PR mission. The boys hook up with a couple of local women (Mira Sorvino and Tushka Bergen), but while Barcelona is grounded in a common romantic-comedy plot, Stillman adds a genteel inquiry into the respective meanings of beauty and image, keenly examining how cultures clash in ways both subtle and resounding. The film is well-stocked with hallmarks of the "Stillman touch"—a purposefully self-conscious definitiveness to the dialogue, an obsession with what constitutes proper behavior, sudden cutting to the aftermath of unshown conflicts, earnestness magnified to the point of hilarity, and a surfeit of unexplained backstory which exists almost as legend in the minds of the leads. (All these themes would be applied with somewhat diminishing returns in Stillman's third movie, The Last Days Of Disco.) Barcelona, though, gets funnier with each viewing, thanks to the precision of the phrasing (none more amusing than Nichols' insistence on dating "plain or even rather homely girls"). The film also becomes more poignant with time, due to its portrait of relatively benign foreign-policy disputes, and of two capable young men destined for an imminent move into the ill-defined purgatory of middle management. Stillman has been criticized for his "civilized" style, which strikes some as too mannered and too wrapped up in the petty concerns of yuppies. But Barcelona is specifically about the inadequacy of overly civilized behavior in tough, real-world situations; the behavior becomes less important than the values that inform it. Barcelona's leads struggle to determine what those values are, and whether they share them.
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