Buttoned Up In Barcelona

Sales reps and navy men may be common in real life, but they are rarely the subjects of American movies, much less American independent movies. Whit Stillman announced with his first feature, the 1990 "Metropolitan," that he marched to a different drummer. That droll social comedy about the WASPy world of New York debutantes is now followed up by Barcelona, an equally singular comedy about the amorous adventures of two American cousins -- WASPs to the core -- in Spain in "the last decade of the cold war." Ted (Taylor Nichols) is the Barcelona sales rep for an American company, so obsessed with the physical beauty of women (and so upset by the breakup of his last relationship) that he vows to date only homely girls. His orderly life (he's a devotee of the philosophy of Dale Carnegie) is seriously upset by the arrival of his gratingly callow cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), an advance man for the Sixth Fleet who moves into his flat, stirs up trouble and refuses to leave. Libidinous but straight-arrowed, these two America-firsters cut odd figures in swinging, disco-driven post-Franco Barcelona, where terrorist bombings and anti-American sentiments accost them at every turn. As do beautiful women. Fred takes up with sultry Marta (Mira Sorvino); Ted, in spite of his vows, is smitten with the comely blonde Monserrat (Tushka Bergen), only to discover that she's still living with a leftist journalist who is writing stories declaring Fred a CIA agent.

"Barcelona" comes replete with explosions and assassination attempts, but its pleasures, like those of "Metropolitan," have little to do with plot and everything to do with its highly chatty and trickily ironic tone. Though the director remains at wry arm's length from Ted and Fred, it's clear that he subscribes both to their America-centric world view and their beauty-fixated view of women. Just why all these gorgeous senoritas fall for these two puritanical gringos remains an unsolved mystery. Stillman, whose wife is from Barcelona, isn't much interested in what lies behind the eyeball-pleasing surface of his fe-male characters; he's an ogler, albeit a courtly one.

Nonetheless, Stillman remains a deftly funny portrait painter of the young, willfully self-involved Anglo-Saxon male. The primly hangdog Nichols and the spectacularly annoying Eigeman, both veterans of "Metropolitan," are perfect vessels for the filmmaker's arch comic sensibility. You may not be able to bring yourself to love them -- Fred may be the only man in the U.S.A. who identified with Katharine Ross's jilted blond groom at the end of "The Graduate" -- but you will surely be amused. The prickly, conservative, jacket-and-tie iconoclasm of "Barcelona" is like nothing else around.