The sophomore jinx that screws up so many filmmakers doesn’t apply to Whit Stillman, the writer and director of an acclaimed 1990 debut film, Metropolitan, about Manhattan debs and preps. Barcelona is also a rude comedy of manners, but it’s no slavish imitation. The scene is Spain near the end of the Cold War and at a peak of America- and NATO-bashing. Ted Boynton (Taylor Nichols), a prep to the tips of the loafers he wears without socks, works in Barcelona as a sales rep for a Chicago company. He avoids political tension, showing more interest in the city’s sexual revolution and the disco-party circuit.
That’s just fine with Ted’s visiting cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), a prankish Navy advance man who moves in with Ted and in on the babes, in particular Marta, deliciously played by Mira Sorvino. Fred’s excesses make Ted rethink his own attitude toward sex. He finds inner and outer beauty in Mont-serrat (Tushka Bergen), a translator, but can’t figure how her love for him fits in with her passion for the Yank-hating journalist Ramon (Pep Munne).
Ted, for all his prissy angst, is trying to build a code of honor. So is Fred, whose patriotic fervor in the face of USO bombings and local ignorance of trade unionism (references are made to the AFL-CIO), shows hidden depths to his character. Nichols and Eigeman, both standouts in Metropolitan, deliver sharply observant performances. What begins as a battle of wits between friends who have irritated each other since childhood ends in a moving display of loyalty. Ted shows his mettle when his obstinate cousin is nearly killed for wearing a naval uniform the natives regard as fascist.
There is another major character — the city itself. Stillman’s wife comes from Barcelona, and the film taps shrewdly into the culture by setting Fred and Ted on a collision course with it. But conflict is not all Stillman brings to the party. His literate dialogue combines a rigorous social conscience with an exuberant bite of fresh comic thinking. “Barcelona” is a remarkable find: The film doesn’t stop at getting your attention, it rewards it.