★★★ / ★★★★
As the Cold War nears its end, Fred (Chris Eigeman), a navy officer, comes to stay with his cousin, Ted (Taylor Nichols), in Barcelona until his fleet arrives. Though their relationship is somewhat strained since childhood, they are the only cousins that each other have so they try to accept each other’s differences. As time passes, however, the every day challenge of being around one another proves to require more energy to endure. It does not help that Fred wears his Navy uniform wherever he goes which inspires strangers to call him “fascist” and other remarks of disgust.
“Barcelona,” written and directed by Whit Stillman, makes shallow characters worth getting to know. It is critical that they believe they stand for something, from being proud Americans living in foreign country to being romantics who yearn to find the right women. Though their lifestyle seems independent of real struggle, accompanied by a lot of complaining, they are interesting subjects because the more we try to understand them, we realize that perhaps we share some of their traits. Fred and Ted want happiness—whatever that means—which appears to vary from day to day.
Ted is the calmer half—at least on the outside. Nichols does a solid job capturing his character’s insecurities, especially when it comes to dating women that he thinks he deserves. He confides to his cousin that he thinks he might have a “romantic illusion problem.” So, in order to correct his condition, he plans to date women who look plain, maybe even homely. This way, he will have a higher chance of finding the so-called right woman because he will love her for who she is as a person rather than her looks.
In turn, we can ask two questions: 1) Can he truly force himself to view women differently just because he has come to a conclusion with regards to what might be wrong with him? 2) Even if he happens to find the “right” woman, will forcing himself to change get in the way of achieving true happiness? Though Ted dresses in a professional way, holds a nice job, and talks like a very educated adult, in a lot of ways he remains a child.
Fred, on the other hand, is an open book. Whatever thought comes across his mind, he has an urgent need to express it. He is the comedic core of the picture and Eigeman excels in allowing his character to communicate thoughts that may sound stupid without the character coming off vacuous. His monologue about shaving and telling false stories about Ted being into S&M match hilarious one-liners like why he looks so good when in front of a mirror but terrible in photos. At some point, I started to think that if I knew someone like him in person, I would want to be his friend because he is entertaining. But he is arrogant, too. His personality is not everyone’s cup of tea.
The material works because the writer-director is willing to dissect between who the characters are and what they stand for. Can they be separated? One of the subplots involves the increasing political tension between the Americans and the Spanish to the point where safety is an issue. I wished that the tension was in the forefront more often so that the more serious turn in the second half could have had a bit more punch. The middle section drags somewhat in that it repeats the revolving doors of women in the men’s lives.
“Barcelona” searches for meaning through characters who are lost. I admire movies that feature characters that I cannot read or figure out twenty minutes into it. Fred and Ted appear to change in small degrees, but a surprising scene comes around once in a while and you wonder if they have changed or learned anything at all.