Barcelona — Mrs. K-sky and I blew off our families, got on a plane, and spent Thanksgiving and the following week drowning our jet lag in small plates of small fish in the Catalonian capital. She’d never seen anything by Whit Stillman, so we queued up his 1994 sophomore effort for the flight back.
In high school and college, I’d loved Metropolitan and Barcelona (Last Days of Disco less so; recently, Damsels in Distress was a pleasant but underwhelming return) and I was a little nervous about going back to them. Without question, the movie holds up.
Ted and Fred Boynton are fractious cousins living together in Barcelona at the end of the cold war. Ted (Taylor Nichols) runs a sales office for a corporation whose purposes are so generic they approach Platonic forms; between Dale Carnegie, Glenn Miller and the Bible, he theorizes himself a Boy Scout’s life of rectitude, spooling out a plan to abandon the distracting pursuit of trade-fair-girl pulchritude in favor of “plain or homely girls.” Fred (Stillman’s muse Chris Eigeman) is an advance man for and passionate defender of the U.S. Navy.
Despite their immaculately wordy debates, the two function as a recognizable comic pair, even classical: hapless Ted and thin-skinned bullying barnacle Fred. Paired off with local girls (Mira Sorvino and Tushka Bergen, fondly bewildered), they splash through a wave of anti-Americanism. As practically religious emissaries for American capitalism and militarism, they pout and protest as they draw the ire (and fire) of their hosts.
It’s said that Woody Allen showed just how far Brooklyn was from Manhattan, creating in Alvy Singer and his other fictional substitutes a figure who was always traveling towards the center while gripping tight his baggage from the periphery. Paradoxically, even though Stillman’s figures represent the WASP power structure, his success — the reason his bald conservatism is never sour or reactionary — comes from giving his “urban haute bourgeois” (as Metropolitan put it) characters some of this same marginal quality. They lash out at the modern world, but their bafflement and insecurity takes the place of that resentment holds among their more politically oriented relatives.
There’s no question that Barcelona’s heart is with Ted, Fred and America. The men of Barcelona are deluded, angry leftists. Stillman doesn’t stint on their arsenal — I can’t imagine another movie that would reference George Meaney and labor imperialism with the old epithet the “AFL-CIA” — but they misfire it (they think it’s an actual union; of course, Fred doesn’t know whether or not it is, and, sublimely, Ted points out that it should technically be the AF of L-CIA). The cousins’ ultimate imperial victory is total, even classical: having triumphantly spirited away their Catalonian beauties to a Midwestern lakeside, they show them the makings of a proper American hamburger.