With only four films to his credit (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco and Damsels in Distress) and all of them in the same milieu (upper class young people in comedies of manners), Whit Stillman is overlooked in discussions about the great American filmmakers who are still working. Stillman has written and directed all four of his films, and all have been critically acclaimed, but his is a thin resume’.
Regardless, Stillman has no bad films on that resume’, a rare honor. Paul Thomas Anderson comes close. Though the second half of Magnolia is bad, the sheer perfection of the first half of that film and its overall audacity generally gets him a pass. Scorsese is a great, but Gangs of New York and Shutter Island are very, very bad films, and his later sycophantic rock documentaries are downright embarrassing. Coppola has some late career dreck (Jack, The Rainmaker) and have you even heard of his last three efforts (Youth Without Youth, Tetro, Twixt)? Eastwood has his share of humdrum work (J. Edgar, Bloodwork, Space Cowboys). Try as I might to suggest otherwise, Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic is not a very good film. Even the Coens, David Fincher, Gus van Sant, David O. Russell, Richard Linklater, and Steve Soderbergh have at least one dog (see A Serious Man, Alien3, Psycho, I Heart Huckabees, Bad News Bears, Solaris).
Woody Allen is closer to Stillman in style. But Allen makes some really horrific pictures (though less so now that he’s not acting in them as much), redeeming himself with a great surprise just when you’ve written him off. Take this list of Allen movies – Hollywood Ending (2002), Anything Else (2003) and Melinda and Melinda (2004). All pretty bad. Ballgame, right? But then, Allen offers a smart Hitchcockian crime movie, Match Point (2005), and he is resurrected. Two more sh** sandwiches follow in 2006 and 2007 (Scoop, Cassandra’s Dream), but in 2008, Allen comes off the canvas again with the charming and seductive Vicky Christina Barcelona. And last year, after another pair of clunkers (Whatever Works, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), the best original screenplay Oscar goes to Allen for Midnight in Paris, a movie I hated, but I defer to the Academy.
Allen makes a lot of movies. Stillman does not. But neither have Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are). Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) or Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult). That’s three 4 for 4s and a 5 for 5. These are the Lynn Swanns of pictures. Not lengthy bodies of work, but their few moments are unforgettable.
Barcelona, Stillman’s second picture, reprises two actors from Metropolitan as different characters. Taylor Nichols plays Ted, a neurotic salesman in late 80s Barcelona. Chris Eigeman plays his cousin, Fred, a naval officer and freeloader sent ahead of the Sixth Fleet in the midst of a wave of anti-Americanism. Both negotiate their acrimonious relationship, borne of childhood injuries inflicted by Eigeman, a truly obnoxious sort who, as a visitor, begins to stink after a day (unlike, as Nichols observes, the fish who takes three). They discuss religion, women, anti-Americanism, sales, history and shaving, all the while falling in and out and in love with various Catalan women.
Nobody writes quite like Stillman. His dialogue is distinct and erudite, but his characters have such a surface forthrightness that what could seem contrived comes out as wholly honest and fresh. Stillman is particularly impressive in presenting a funny, incisive culture clash between the mildly ugly Americans and the bemused, mildly antagonistic Spanish. Both treat each other as curious and even hostile interactions over politics are amusing and revealing.
Ants reappear later in the film.