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Writer/director Whit Stillman periodically surfaces from obscurity with lackadaisical but sometimes witty observation pieces on social mores. Of the three small films he turned out during the 1990s, Barcelona (1994) is by far the best in all regards. Taylor Nichols stars as Ted, a young American salesman neurotically traversing the pitfalls of work and romance in the lively Catalan capital during the late 1980s. Just as he's squared most of his life in compliance with the wisdom of sales gurus Dale Carnegie and Frank Bettger, all order is interrupted by the surprise arrival of Ted's irascible only cousin, Fred (Chris Eigeman), a U.S. Navy Lt. on a PR mission amidst a culture of growing anti-Americanism. While Ted barely tolerates Fred's mischievous half-truths and brash manner, both become involved with unpredictable Spanish women (including Mira Sorvino in an early breakthrough performance) and struggle to understand the cultural gulf that separates them. Although Barcelona's plotting is modest, Stillman crafts an excellent study of the way in which petty lies, misunderstandings, hasty assumptions and cultural disconnects can create tension, excitement, havoc and occasionally danger within a community — while also, in some cases, providing a certain level of ignorant comfort. Stillman's script is witty, poignant and insightful, and unlike his visually poor low-budget debut Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona is bright and charming with occasional moments of shimmering beauty. Still plaguing the director, however, is his poor actors — specifically Nichols, who, although appealing (and terrific in the recent HBO series The Mind of the Married Man), fumbles through the literate narration with a surprising rate of miscued inflections, as if some lab disaster forced Stillman to use an early rehearsal track. It's an unfortunate mar, and perhaps excused by the young age of Nichols' career. And Eigeman is sarcastic and assured in only his second film role (both actors debuted in Stillman's first film), making Nichols look even worse. However, the film's unusually intelligent characterizations and wit cement its spot as one of the best, most grievously overlooked independent films of the 1990s. Warner's Barcelona DVD release features a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a slightly degraded film source, while audio is in Dolby 2.0 Surround. Includes a chatty commentary with director Stillman and actors Nichols and Eigeman. Trailer, snap-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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