Puccini For Beginners

2007, Movie, NR, 82 mins


Much like its overintellectualizing heroine, who lets her theories about sex and sexuality interfere with the dictates of her soul, Maria Maggenti's long-belated follow-up to her groundbreaking debut THE INCREDIBLY TRUE ADVENTURES OF TWO GIRLS IN LOVE (1995) is more head than heart. It's a talky, chemistry-deficient, Woody Allen-esque screwball comedy set in a now-mythic New York found only on certain blocks in the city's exclusive West Village.

Opera-loving novelist Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser) seems genuinely shocked when her girlfriend, Samantha (Julianne Nicholson), packs up and returns to her ex-boyfriend, telling the unromantic Allegra that a girl needs to hear the L-word (as in love) once in a while. Whenever things threaten to get a little intimate, Samantha continues, Allegra retreats into theories about sexuality and commitment (straight people's burden, she believes) rather than allowing herself to ever get close. While Allegra has no problem putting aside the theoretical problems inherent in Pucci's Turandot and falling in love with the romance of it all, she can't seem to do the same in her own life. Once again on her own, Allegra turns to her trio of Sex in the City-style friends for support: Allegra's imperious ex, Nell (Tina Benko, in an amusing turn); Nell's new girlfriend, Vivian (Kate Simses); and Allegra's best friend Molly (Jennifer Dundas), a likable goof and the only straight gal in the bunch. What Allegra doesn't tell her friends is that she's started sleeping with someone new.... And he ain't a she. His name is Philip (Justin Kirk), an associate philosophy professor at Columbia whom a drunken Allegra met at a cocktail party. The very idea of sleeping with a man puts Allegra into a tailspin of theoretical uncertainty — who is she if she's not a lesbian? — and the minute Philip starts making noises that remotely sound like the word "commitment," her instinct is to cut and run. Allegra is far more comfortable dating adorable investment banker Grace (Gretchen Mol), whom Allegra meets at a screwball movie festival (imagine!). Justin doesn’t know about Grace, and Grace doesn't know about Allegra's guy on the sly. What Allegra doesn't know is that Grace and Justin know each other well — they just ended a six-year relationship over Justin's own commitment issues. It's just a matter of time before Allegra's secrets come to light, and the real question isn't on which side of the fence Allegra will finally fall, but whether either Grace or Justin will want her after her cheating ass hits the ground.

Maggenti uses too many devices borrowed from movies like ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN to feel remotely fresh, like the tired trope of passing strangers who offer advice or quote Freud to help justify the string of coincidences on which the entire movie hangs. And can we please put a moratorium on all future scenes involving knowing sushi chefs who, unbeknownst to our lovers, comment on the action in Japanese? There's also precious little chemistry between the players. Only Mol has any charm of which to speak, and, frankly, she deserves much better. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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