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Overall Rating
2.8

Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look: 40%
Average: 6.67%
Pretty Bad46.67%
Total Crap: 6.67%

2 reviews, 3 user ratings



Puccini for Beginners
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Romantic Comedy For Dummies"
2 stars

Since your typical screwball romantic comedy tends to involve its characters indulging in behavior that might strike the average person as slightly strange or downright delusional if they were to encounter it in a real life situation, a successful one needs to supply characters who are charming, compelling and likable enough to allow us to forgive or overlook their occasionally off-putting actions. “Puccini For Beginners” has all the elements for a contemporary riff on the genre–it combines such classic ingredients as an attractive cast and a goofy plot with a modern-day sexual sensibility–but it pretty much fails completely because the central character is nowhere near as charming, compelling or likable as she and writer-director Maria Maggenti clearly seem to think she is. Because of that, there is no real reason for any of us in the audience to root for her happiness in the end and because of that, there is also no compelling reason to sit around and watch as she pursues her happiness in the most annoying manner possible.

Elizabeth Reaser stars as Allegra, a neurotic New York lesbian who, as the film opens, has just been dumped by girlfriend Samantha (Julianne Nicholson) because of her refusal to commit to anything. Broken-hearted in that movie way in which people cope with the end of a romance by articulating their angst at length to anyone within earshot, Allegra decides to forgo romance forever and begin writing the follow-up to her highly-acclaimed and low-selling first novel. This abstention has hardly gone on for five minutes when she finds herself flirting with someone new at a party. Shockingly, this person is a man–well, a philosophy professor named Philip (Justin Kirk)–but even though Allegra is a lesbian (another thing she likes repeating over and over, as though she needed to constantly remind herself and everyone in the tri-state area about her sexuality), she soon finds herself sleeping with the guy and he is so mesmerized by her that he breaks off with his own long-time girlfriend in order to be with her.

At the same time, Allegra goes to a “Screwball Comedy Festival”–one of those things that always pops up in a contemporary romantic comedy so that the characters can discuss the classics while subliminally suggesting that their film deserves to be compared alongside them–and has a Meet Cute with Grace (Gretchen Mol), a professional woman who harbors a lifelong dream of being a glass-blower. Like many of us might do in any situation in which the words “glass-blowing” emerge from the mouth of someone looking like Gretchen Mol, Allegra eventually makes a pass and since Grace is at wits end after being dumped by her long-time boyfriend, she accepts and the two of them become a couple as well. What Allegra doesn’t know (though we know right from the start, thanks to an oddly pointless prologue) is that Philip and Grace were a couple until Allegra inadvertently drove them apart and when she discovers this, she is forced to jump through any number of hoops to make sure that one doesn’t find out about the other. In the climax, all three wind up at the same party–Philip and Grace as guests and Allegra as a replacement caterer (don’t ask)–while our heroine finds herself dashing from room to room to keep up appearances–if that weren’t enough, the party is to celebrate the engagement of Samantha to some loutish guy and it turns out that she still has feelings for Allegra as well.

As I said before, the only way for a film like this to succeed is if we find ourselves liking Allegra and rooting for her to overcome her complicated love life and find happiness at last. The problem with “Puccini for Beginners” is that Allegra is such a singularly annoying character throughout that it is impossible to either care about her eventual happiness or discover what it is that the other characters see in her in the first place. She is vain, needy, cloying, whiny, clueless and relentlessly self-absorbed from start to finish. These aren’t necessarily bad traits in a screwball comedy star but the problem is that the film wants us to see here as an adorably quirky charmer throughout and it is impossible to reconcile the one with the other. Furthermore, the character shows no discernible on-screen connection with any of her romantic partners and without that key element, there is no way of caring who it is that she winds up with in the end.

This isn’t entirely the fault of Reaser–who has the kind of off-beat good looks and comic timing that make you want to see her in a good romantic comedy–as much as it is the limp material that she has been given to work with. All of the characters are paper-thin cliches who are so busy constantly reminding us of how quirky and unique they are that they never have a chance to actually demonstrate those qualities. (The only person who demonstrates any personality is Julianne Nicholson as the ex-girlfriend but she is on-screen too little to make much of an impact.) Maggenti’s sense of pacing is all off as well–despite running less than 90 minutes, the film drags on endlessly and has far more dead spots than live-wire moments. As for the blurred lines of sexuality that would seem to be the central element of the film, Maggenti introduces it and then disappointingly doesn’t do much of anything with it–even the screwball farces of the Production Code era had more cheerful sexuality in them than the oddly antiseptic goings-on here.

These flaws are especially bewildering when you consider that Maggenti’s previous theatrical effort, 1995's “The Incredibly True Adventure Of Two Girls in Love,” was also a screwball comedy but it contained quirky and unique characters and a story that was funny and sexy throughout–watching this one , it feels as if she had somehow forgot everything that she once knew about making this kind of film. The film may entitled “Puccini for Beginners” (our heroine enjoys forcing friends and lovers to sit through operas so that she can regale/bore them afterwards with tales of how “Turandot” is both misogynist and feminist at the same time) but a more apt moniker would be “Romantic Comedy for Dummies.”

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=13555&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/09/07 18:06:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/28/14 Sam Boring 2 stars
12/13/08 Annie G It’s OK for the genre, but certainly not great. 3 stars
2/06/07 mohan good 1 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  02-Feb-2007 (NR)
  DVD: 03-Jul-2007

UK
  N/A
  DVD: 22-Oct-2007

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Maria Maggenti

Written by
  Maria Maggenti

Cast
  Justin Kirk
  Gretchen Mol
  Elizabeth Reaser



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