Cinema:A very rough guide to Barcelona

Whit Stillman: the missing link between Nicholson Baker and Quentin Tarantino?
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The Independent Culture
THE WORLD of Whit Stillman is as crisp and formal as a newly ironed dress shirt. His second movie, Barcelona (12), has a similar crew to his first, Metropolitan: clean-cut American Wasps, smoothly exchanging self-satisfied aphorisms. Only the back drop has altered: from gaudy Manhattan to Gaudi's Barcelona. In Metropolitan, the plot was eased into motion when the characters met on the way to a deb dance. Here, things proceed from a fancy-dress ball. Stillman is a cultural conservative, and he cle aves to the old social order - though always with a smirk on his face. A stately, elegiac cello solo reprises through Barcelona, accompanying images of the city in cerulean splendour. This is a world where repartee stiffens the conversation like studs in a collar.

The central characters are a pair of American expat cousins, Ted and Fred Boynton (Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman, both from Metropolitan). Ted is a straight young blade, working in sales for a Chicago company and recovering from a tempestuous love affair. He has withdrawn into celibate reflection: his greatest comfort is Dr Johnson. Johnson comes to mind when cousin Fred, a US Navy officer, drops in: "Guests, like fish, begin to stink on the third day." Fred's chiselled good looks and boundless confidence bring the household a stream of attractive women and a shot of American imperialism. There follows a comedy of cultural, familial and romantic skirmishing, which gets formalised in melodrama.

Stillman's theme is national identity, which he views as an odd amalgam of pride and recollection. Ted, defending American cuisine against snobbish Continental detractors, counters: "They have no idea of how delicious hamburgers can be" - and talks of "this delicious hamburger of memory". Such paeans to Uncle Sam raise a laugh, but also a problem. It is hard to discern much satirical distance from the American gung-hoism, or to see where Stillman stops and his characters start. Fred boasts that anti-Americanism has its roots in sexual impotence, and you wonder if Stillman agrees. He certainly wants to have his apple pie and eat it.

It would help if there was a counter-argument. But the Catalans are ciphers. We hear a lot about an anti-American journalist, but we don't get to explore his views. In Metropolitan, Stillman was acutely sensitive to the balance between conformity and individuality, especially in his women - the pressures of the peer-pack and the secret passion for Jane Austen. His Spanish women have no such depth. There is a host of smart-suited secretary-types, who make up the soignee backdrop to Fred's world. Tushka Bergen and Mira Sorvino play the cousins' love interests. But their characters can be summed up in two words: blonde and brunette.

Stillman remains an American film-maker of rare skill and personality. In a homogenised, often crude industry, anyone with a veneer of sophistication is welcome. Stillman is good at composition and editing, cutting elegiacally to music. His dialogue is well turned, though his aphorisms can trail off into inconsequence ("I think this way of always falling in love with incredibly beautiful girls is really bad"). At times, he seems like the missing link between Nicholson Baker and Quentin Tarantino, in hisability to raise nitpicking over trivia to regius professor level. There is a nice running gag in which Fred debates whether he has spent his whole adult life shaving the wrong way.

Smart touches aside, you still feel that the promise of Metropolitan has congealed. Stillman's glacial suavity has frosted over to become as flat as a sheet of ice. There is a sequence of the girls, in matching red-and-black haute-couture suits, riding Vespas through the city centre. Even the Spanish midday sun seems unable to thaw the coldness of Stillman's conception. Lost in his city of words, he forgets to explore the real town. Nor does he make good the vague hint that Latin exuberance may make American macho seem stiff in all the wrong senses.

"Everything was completely different now," says Ted after he falls in love. Not on the screen it wasn't. You long for someone to ruffle the characters' hair, for commotion and drama. Whit Stillman should try, like his near-namesake, Walt Whitman, to "contain multitudes". I would have liked to see Montserrat Caballe careering round a corner, belting out her own "Barcelona".

There are more Americans running amok in Europe in Only You (PG), a comedy about the idea of romantic destiny. Is there someone out there meant for us? Marisa Tomei thinks so. A little more than thinks - her name is Faith. As a child she was told she would marry a man called Damon Bradley. Soon after she gets engaged to a podiatrist called Dwayne (the nearest fit?), she takes a call for him from a friend of his in Italy - Damon Bradley. Cue wildly romantic goose chase across Venice and Rome, with unhappily married friend (Bonnie Hunt) in tow. Soon a shoe-salesman (Robert Downey Jnr) is on hand to claim that the slipper fits.

This is the kind of script that must have worked at the drawing-board stage - it's clear, smart and savvy - but never takes off on screen. After her riveting manic turns in My Cousin Vinny and Untamed Heart, Tomei is strangely wan, as if subdued by landing the leading role. Her girlie interplay with Hunt never bustles into life. There is an enjoyable stock Latin lothario, but overall this may be one you were meant to give a miss.

River Phoenix rises from the flames again in Silent Tongue (12). With Sam Shepard directing his own script, there appear to be three reasons to see the film. But don't get carried away: Shepard is out to pasture, Phoenix has a brief cameo, and the film is as dull as it is confusing. Richard Harris plays a man whose son (Phoenix) is grief-stricken, almost to the point of madness, at the death of his wife in childbirth. Harris begs Alan Bates, the orotund leader of a group of travelling players, to give Phoenix his daughter. Bates and Harris make an accomplished double-act. Phoenix is wrenchingly intense. And there are some impressive scrabbly landscapes, set against slate-grey mountains. But the script is so garrulous and dour that you wonder what audience was ever envisaged for it.

Cinema details: Review, page 74