Puccini For Beginners

Though better made and better acted, Maria Maggenti's second film in a decade, the intermittently witty romantic comedy “Puccini for Beginners,” is less consequential than her feature debut, “Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love.”

The movie, which received its world premiere at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival as one of the 16 Dramatic Competition entries, and is now, ayear later, released by the entrepreneurial Strand Releasing. It's pale imitation of Woody Allen's New York romantic comedies, except that its central character, Allegra, is a lesbian; no, a bi-sexual; no, a woman suffering from confused sexual identity–whatever.

Maggenti doesn't exactly chart new grounds. With all the reservations that I had about Kevin Smith's preposterous plotting in “Chasing Amy,” it was wittier and more poignant that “Puccini for Beginners.” I also recall fondly the Jewish comedy about sexual confusion, “Kissing Jessica Stein,” which we honored (with my colleagues Jami Bernard and Stephanie Zecharech) with major awards when it played at the 2001 L.A. Indie Film Festival (The film was then picked up by Fox Searchlight and did rater nicely commercially).

In this picture, Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser) is a witty, high-strung New York novelist going through a crisis with her companion Samantha (Nicholson) over the issues of commitment and monogamy. Inadvertently, she she falls into an unorthodox menage-a-trois with a gorgeous-looking blonde, Grace (Gretchen Mol), and nerdy Columbia literature professor, Philip (Justin Kirk).

Unbeknownst to her, Grace and Philip have just ended their conventional six-year relationship. Using her charm and manipulative skills, Allegra plays off Philips masculine narcissism while not neglecting Graces more feminine nurturing.
In the end (which is also the beginning of the yarn), Maggenti congregates all the characters together at a party that announced Samanthas wedding.

Maggenti is not as sohisticated or stylish as Woody Allen; she's better at drawing sketches and occasionally witty dialogue. Nonetheless, since the film is light, fluffy, and brisk, you go along with the shifts in sexual orientation, always aware of the director-writer's schemes. (I am not sure that Maggenti herself intended the saga to be taken seriously.)

Maggenti has said that she had problems casting the lead character, Allegra, because she is a female, smart in a New York intellectual way, self-proclaimed lesbian with little concern for her partners' sexual needs, and loves opera, an artform that many Americans consider opaque and archaic. Indeed, Allegra blithely beds down a man and then a woman without much concern for either her feelings or theirs.

Though not a great actress, Elizabeth Reaser is charming enough in an offhanded way to pull off the trick, at least while the saga unfolds; afterwards, the whole thing evaporates like a balloon. Allegra is a quasi-intellectual woman, who cares more about her vocabulary than about her looks. As the subject and object of the action, Allegra is in almost every scene.

Wishing to explore sexual politics that's currently out of fashion, an amalgamation of 1970s feminism, 1980s identity politics, and contempo retro gender stereotypes, Maggenti's intent is honorable, at least on paper. Occasionally, she is successful at poking fun at both the seriousness of her characters and the seriousness with which American mainstream culture views men and women. A woman who wants sexual pleasure and sexual freedom is still in a real bind in American culture. If she's at all intellectually inclined and her sexiness isn't necessarily located in her cleavage, she's especially penalized.

Like Allen, Maggenti fills her superficial yarn with literary, cinematic, and cultural references. This is a movie in which characters read, often on street benches and in parks, and socialize in restaurants, chic and not so chic. Also like Allen's characters, Maggenti's talk a lot, except that what they say is not particularly witty or funny. The movie gets increasingly verbose and thus irritating.

I also wish Maggenti was a better director for her staging is clumsy, and technical skills leave a lot to be desired. The camera is often in the wrong place, and the editing is choppy and abrupt.

If memory serves, the film's catchy title is lifted from the superior Danish comedy, “Italian for Beginners.”