What's not to love about this sensitive, off-kilter love story about a young, too-earnest salesman Ted and his sly, disruptive Ugly American cousin-with-issues Fred? Nothing. The film grabs you from their first bickering exchange in Ted's apartment building, and never lets go, not because of fast-paced editing or shiny visuals (though the film doesn't drag and Barcelona at night is a wonder) but because of the clever dialogue. Whit Stillman makes films for people who love to read, yet they are not stilted exercises in "Masterpiece Theater"-style draftsmanship but laugh-out-loud exchanges of opinion between engaging people who just happen to see the world in sometimes very/ sometimes slightly different ways. It's like "Friends" if that cast suddenly grew brains. Give this movie five minutes, and it will suck you in like a vacuum.
Ultimately, what grabs me is how the film is so chock full of life, of people who haven't got much of a clue about life winging it and hazarding the consequences. I remember those days. Ted pledges to date "only plain or even homely women" because he thinks beauty obscures the true essence of love. Fred tells people his cousin is into the Marquis de Sade and leather underwear because he thinks it makes Ted more interesting to the ladies than the Bible-reading goody-goody Ted really is.
Actually, Fred may be on to something. It seems to help Ted in meeting his dream woman Montserrat. Ted and Montserrat are an odd couple. He wrestles earnestly with his religion and believes in salesmanship as a means of understanding life, while she is a free-living, free-loving Spaniard who thinks leaving her native land for America will condemn her future children to a life of hamburger-eating zombiedom.
I was in Barcelona in 1981 myself and saw first-hand how beautiful and magical the place truly is. I also saw the anti-Americanism and anti-"OTAN"ism prevalent there. Stillman isn't overselling the negative attitudes many in Spain and throughout Europe had of the United States during those critical days of the Cold War. It's a good thing they got that out of their system, huh? The movie could have been heavy-handed in this way, but never allows itself to be, not with all those funny ant analogies. Ramon, the left-wing writer who fingers Fred for being a member of the CIA (or the AFL-CIA, as Ramon is convinced the labor union and the intelligence agency are somehow connected), is not stupid or mean, but just like Ted and Fred, a little too caught up in his own ideas of how things are, or as Ted puts it in a moment of truth at the hospital, another person given to filtering reality through his own colossal egotism.
Whit Stillman seems to be averaging two films a decade now, and it's a shame. He and Chris Eigeman need to make more movies together. I never get tired of Eigeman's snarky charm, or Stillman's ability to create films equally rich in one-liners and in context. "Barcelona" was the finest of Stillman's three efforts, with the best story and backdrop, but the earlier "Metropolitan" was not far behind. "Last Days of Disco," the most recent Stillman film, wasn't as good as the first two, but is engaging and absorbing enough on its own terms. If you haven't seen any of them, start with this one.
[The DVD contains several interesting deleted scenes and an alternative ending which might have made the film a bit darker but wouldn't have disrupted anything essential. Still, it's hard to argue with an ending that has Montserrat bite into an authentic American hamburger and pronounce it "incredible." At least unless you're a vegetarian, in which case Fred would probably say that's your problem.]