puccini for beginners
Written and Directed: Maria Maggenti
The term "navel gazing" was invented to describe characters like Jenny Schecter on The L Word, and films like this. For those not in the know, it means overt and often pointless, painful self-reflection. It is the height of oblivious self-indulgence.
When mixed with a certain irony and wit, depicting characters spiralling into their own navels (ala every character Woody Allen has ever played) can be a humourous way for writers to make plot points. Puccini For Beginners doesn't have that level of comic finesse. The unlikeable heroine Allegra seemingly learns nothing from her errors, about herself or others, she merely sinks into self-pity. It doesn't help that she keeps telling us about all the weird coincidences the film revels in either, as if a knowing wink and shrugging off the implausible will somehow make it more palatable.
The first two minutes of Puccini For Beginners is dedicated to placing the film squarely in New York (yet another of those swooping establishing shots into Manhattan) and in Greenwich Village specifically. I've never been there, but I've seen enough films set in New York to know the classic landmarks. Just like the understanding in the fashion industry about bubble skirts and shoulder pads, there should be a memo sent out to the film community that the Woody Allen copycat thing is done.
Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser), a sworn lesbian, drives away her girlfriend through an inability to commit. Against her better judgement she gets involved with Philip (Justin Kirk, who I thought could do anything after Angels in America) who she meets at a party. She then meets Grace (Gretchen Mol) by chance and begins an affair with her too, not knowing at the time - but knowing later - that Grace and Philip have just ended their long term relationship. Not that Allegra finding out does anything to stop the farce
We, however, are cursed with knowing the key piece of information from the first five minutes onwards, which destroys any dramatic effect this revelation might have had later on. In fact, Knowing the twist in advance does not even create the comedic tension the director intended. We do not knowingly smirk as we watch Allegra commit one tragic mistake after another. In particular, bisexual women who object to the portrayal of their sexuality as promiscuous will be yelling insults at the screen.
Basically throughout the film's first half we're just tapping our toes impatiently waiting for Allegra to inevitably catch up with us. It takes a while, she has to thoroughly ruin her life and the lives of those around her first, which might have been funny except that I couldn't find anything within the character to like or sympathise with. She doesn't deserve her happy ending, she deserves to be miserable, and much worse besides.
Trying to be supportive but generally just confused by the whole thing is Allegra's best friend Molly (Jennifer Dundas, who plays a funny, supporting role as Diane Keaton's lesbian daughter in The First Wives Club), a sharp-talking, man-obsessed ball of mischief who bounces in and out of every scene she's in with maximum enthusiasm. She almost succeeds in stealing the show from the leads, and would have done so had her part been bigger.
The movie's production values are undoubtedly high for digital video, although there were some distracting clangers with continuity (characters mysteriously changing outfits). Maggenti has made a lovely-looking movie. I think though that if you're looking for something positive to say about an indie and have to resort to "well, the production values were damn good" that you're scraping the bottom of the critical barrel. I would prefer to be able to write ,"it looked no-budget but it was riveting and hilarious!" To illustrate, despite its dated and grainy feel, Maggenti's first effort, The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, was completely superior to this.
I really didn't like the random extras who suddenly began talking and offering odd pieces of advice and wisdom, like a roving greek chorus. They were telegraphed a mile away too; an open door in shot that you quickly realised someone had to walk through, or a woman on a park bench who seemed really conspicuous so you knew she had to be part of the action somehow.
As with all films I haven't enjoyed, I always add the disclaimer that where a film is capably made and offers a modicum of entertainment value, there can be a wide variance in people's opinions and enjoyment factor. A quick troll online revealed that the reviews out there are pretty 50/50 on this film, but nobody is wildly enthusiastic. Put together the slickness of Maria Maggenti's second film with the heart of her first and you might have something special.
I do feel compelled to congratulate Maggenti for not having any coming-out or baby trauma in her film, but I leave you with this: are irritating, self-involved, overly-intellectualised lesbians any better than emotionally tormented ones?