By Alan Scherstuhl
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Carolina Del Busto
By Amy Nicholson
By Simon Abrams
By Kevin Dilmore
By New Times
By Amy Nicholson
Last week, I wrote about My Life's in Turnaround, a low-budget slacker comedy co-written and co-directed by its two stars, who hobbled their own considerable promise as a comedy team by placing themselves in an overly self-referential context--they played fledgling filmmakers struggling to finance a project. Barcelona, though admittedly a very different film, also hinges on the comic interplay between a pair of frustrated, self-centered, white, patrician twentysomethings. But they're placed in a larger social context, where their situation has some meaning. It still seems like upper-class wanking, but it isn't romanticized.
In spite of his admiration for the self-improvement literature of business, Ted is a morose, dejected defeatist since a recent breakup. He's disillusioned by his fixation on female beauty to the point that he's begun to absurdly sentimentalize plain women as "soulful." To his embarrassment, he's also become religious, albeit furtively so--he hides his Bible in a copy of The Economist when in company, but when alone, he reads Proverbs and Ecclesiastes while dancing to Glenn Miller's "Pennsylvania 6-5000." Fred, who identifies this activity as normal Presbyterian behavior to his Spanish girlfriend when they catch Ted at it, is apparently embarrassed by nothing. The night he arrives, while Ted is showing him the town, some street kids call him a fascist because of the full-dress Navy uniform he's unwisely wearing, and he can't let go of it--he keeps noting that "men who wore this uniform died ridding Europe of fascism."
Fred's gung-ho attitudes are mocked, but gently. Stillman could probably have scored more Brownie points with the art-house audience in this country (and others) had he made Fred an all-out caricature of cloddish, Reagan-era zealotry. Instead, he lets you see that Fred has a point--it's just a point that was of steadily decreasing relevance to Europe in the 80s. Fred's aggressively wrong-headed refusal to grasp how anyone might question the motives of the U.S. is both hilarious and maddening. Yet his refusal to take the advice of everyone from Ted to the beleaguered consul (Jack Gilpin) and ignore the Yankee-go-home sentiments that are all around him has the effect of making him seem less condescending than the other characters, thus more attractive. He pays for his brashness.
Stillman's sensibility, both as writer and as director, is superficially much closer to Ted than to Fred--quiet, thoughtful, elliptical. It might seem overly precious and flippant, but Stillman gives it a shadow. There's a great moment midfilm that sums up Barcelona at its best--we're shown a prettily composed still life of Ted's living room, while down the street, we hear the blast of an anti-NATO terrorist's bomb. The shot is packed with both gentility and danger; it's funny and chilling at the same time, and is over so quickly that it becomes part of the film's fabric rather than a laboriously italicized "touch." Barcelona is most likable because it transcends politics without being willfully simpleminded. Given a sense of humor and perspective, a liberal or a conservative could laugh equally hard at it, in the same places, for the same reasons. The value of a film like this shouldn't be underestimated.
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