The opening-night aGLIFF screening, Puccini for Beginners, was a sweet little old-fashioned comedy about bisexuality, sexual identity and juggling multiple lovers. You could almost take your mom to see it -- if your mom isn't the type to faint at the sight of women kissing or the sound of a Hitachi. Writer-director Maria Maggenti also directed another well-known romantic comedy, the 1995 film The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love.
The title refers to the favorite hobby of Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser), an opera fiend who is continually landing herself into situations of an overly dramatic nature (a la grand opera), or nursing a broken heart. Her girlfriend Samantha leaves her because she feels Allegra is unable to commit, and besides, Samantha keeps claiming she's not a lesbian anyway. Allegra mopes around until she spends an evening with Philip (Justin Kirk), who cheers her up ... and most unexpectedly, turns her on. On top of everything else, she starts suffering a sexual-identity crisis because of Philip. She also develops a friendship with Grace (Gretchen Mol), an investment banker by day, glassblower by night who's having trouble with her longtime live-in boyfriend.
We already know, from the first scene, what ultimately will happen, since most of the movie is a flashback, recounted by Allegra in voiceover. But the journey back to that point is fairly entertaining, if not exactly suspenseful -- we know what's going on before the characters do. The New York-centric movie owes a great debt to Woody Allen, specifically Annie Hall, as it uses many of the same narrative techniques. Passersby often stop what they're doing to give Allegra advice or comment on her situation. However, the unreal character interactions aren't handled consistently: In one scene, it's obvious that a waitress advising Allegra is actually a fantasy moment occurring only in her own head -- but a few scenes later, everyone around her witnesses the subway announcer berating Allegra for her life choices. After the farcical climactic scene, which returns to the teaser at the beginning of the film, the ending drags and barely resolves itself.
The dialogue and situational humor in Puccini for Beginners is often sharp, and the audience at the screening I attended loved some of Allegra's lines ("youthful pulchritude" is a phrase that we don't use nearly enough in everyday conversation). The minor characters are hilarious at times; I loved the sushi chefs at Allegra's favorite restaurant. Tina Benko, as Allegra's tall ex Nell, dominates every scene she's in, beautifully.
But the main characters are shallow and inconsistent, and it's difficult to have much sympathy for them. Allegra reveals little personality beyond her propensity for trainwreck situations and a secret liking for screwball comedy films, which admittedly I found endearing. (Note to Puccini for Beginners filmmakers: Holiday would not play in a screwball comedy film festival.) When Allegra becomes involved with Philip, she catches herself doing straight-acting things that frighten her, like ordering a salad instead of a steak when they're out for dinner. But we never see her grounded enough in her lesbian lifestyle to understand that this is something she'd only do on a date with a man, and no motivation for her behavior is evident.
In addition, Philip is downright pompous at times, and Allegra's attraction to him seems incongruous. Grace's character is the type of slight role that Uma Thurman can make shine, but Gretchen Mol never lifts it out of standard blonde cuteness. These aren't well-rounded characters who propel the action of the film, but rather instruments of the farcical elements of the story. I didn't care which character ended up with which other by the end of the film, and it hardly seemed to matter.
Puccini for Beginners is more of a sitcom of a film, with solid character actors who have good comic timing and know the best way to milk a laugh out of a line of dialogue or a facial expression. Like many sitcoms, I never quite understand why the characters don't just tell each other the truth about what's going on and straighten everything out, but then of course the movie wouldn't be nearly so entertaining. It's a good escapist comedy that doesn't require a lot of work from the audience, and a fun film to enjoy in a sold-out festival crowd. However, the shallow laughs are ultimately unmemorable.