Puccini for Beginners is set in a world few of us will ever know. A world where no one works, but can afford lavish meals and spacious New York apartments; one where sexual orientation is chosen by whichever will get you laid and is funnier in a given situation.
In the tradition of upper-class, New York intellectual comedies that inundate the audience with esoteric references to cultural zeitgeists few people will understand if they haven’t lived in Manhattan all their lives, Puccini for Beginners is another love lost, love found again dialogue-drenched film that shows off its knowledge of New York like the kid in the front of class who always knows the answer.
Written and directed by Maria Maggenti, who made her name in 1995 with The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, the film is too busy patting itself on the back for its witticisms to tell a real and engaging story. Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser) is a writer who has one semi-successful book to her name, though we never see her write or research or do anything but talk. Her girlfriend (oh, Allegra’s a lesbian by the way), Samantha (Julianne Nicholson) walks out on her because Allegra won’t say, “I love you,” and has trouble being totally committed. Allegra meets Phillip (Justin Kirk), and rejects his attempts by coming onto him. They start dating.
Allegra also meets Grace (Gretchen Mol), who hasn’t been a lesbian in the past, but why not give it a shot with Allegra? The secret Allegra doesn’t know is that Phillip and Grace recently broke up. What will happen when (if?) Allegra finds out?
Maggenti has attempted a witty satire on dating and sexual double standards, but the result is an extended episode of Sex and the City with a few gay women instead of four straight women. However, sexual orientation in Puccini for Beginners seems easier to switch than seats in a lecture hall. Woody Allen, who is arguably the king of New York highbrow humor, for good reason, has made a career out of garrulous characters and obscure references, but does so in a way that doesn’t take away from the film. Maggenti is too preoccupied with breaking conventions of reality (i.e. strangers giving Allegra incredibly poignant and accurate observations about her life) to tell an engaging story. We don’t really care about these characters.
The most redeeming quality of the film, aside from the brief running time, is Mol, once again stealing every scene she is in. Her naïve and genuinely nice Grace wants only to find love, and Mol hits the mannerisms and speech right on and pulls back just in time to keep Grace from seeming like an airhead.
As Allegra, Reaser is so morose and dark it feels as though she is trying to impersonate Janeane Garofalo as opposed to creating a real character. Kirk stammers through the film as Justin, giving us no indication he is anything but words on a piece of paper.
Puccini for Beginners is set in a world few of us will ever know. A world where no one works, but can afford lavish meals and spacious New York apartments; one where sexual orientation is chosen by whichever will get you laid and is funnier in a given situation. | Matthew F. Newlin