Review: ‘Puccini for Beginners’

While it tips its hat to screwball comedy, "Puccini for Beginners" owes more to contemporary sitcom. It also has way more in common with "Sex and the City" than "The L Word." None of that is entirely a bad thing in a film that never really soars but has enough breezy humor to land on the specialty theatrical fringe.

Ten years after hitching lesbian teen romance to conventional narrative in “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love,” Maria Maggenti now charts a bisexual romantic triangle in post-feminist, post-p.c. New York. While it tips its hat to screwball comedy, “Puccini for Beginners” owes more to contemporary sitcom. It also has way more in common with “Sex and the City” than “The L Word.” None of that is entirely a bad thing in a film that never really soars but has enough breezy humor to land on the specialty theatrical fringe.

Latest entry from the InDigEnt project that spawned “Tadpole,” “Pieces of April” and “Personal Velocity,” among others, has a number of things going for it. Writer-director Maggenti knows her way around snappy, sophisticated dialogue. In Elizabeth Reaser and Justin Kirk, she has two intelligent, appealing leads who play off each other’s brittle edges in amusing ways. And the under-the-radar digital production allows for extensive, loving use of Manhattan locations that usually now get ditched in favor of cheaper Canadian stand-ins.

Reaser plays Allegra, a writer whose inability to surrender to love sends girlfriend Samantha (Julianne Nicholson) careening back to heterosexuality. Feeling sorry for herself at a party soon after, Allegra meets chummy Columbia professor Philip (Kirk) and some drunken flirtation ensues. A second encounter lands them in bed. Despite her dismay when Philip exits his static long-term relationship and campaigns to keep seeing her, Allegra agrees to “a brief, meaningless affair.”

Before Maggenti can be accused of entirely forsaking lesbians for has-bians, Allegra slips into a parallel romance with Grace (Gretchen Mol), unaware that she’s the woman Philip dumped.

Mol is hampered by fuzzy definition of her character — she has underdeveloped touches of the classic screwball ditz, and her creative blossoming as a glassblower adds little. But ultimately, the actress relaxes into her role as a sweet young woman fumbling for love on the rebound.

Divided, like the operas that Allegra adores, into three acts with a prologue and epilogue, the comedy playfully orchestrates the inevitable rude awakenings, first for Allegra and then for her unwitting rival lovers. The awkward fix prompts the writer finally to open her eyes and declare her true feelings.

There’s nothing especially original going on here, and the laughs are often minor. The film’s energy tends to dissipate at times and composer Terry Dame’s jaunty score borders on cute, as does Maggenti’s overuse of comic devices borrowed from vintage Woody Allen. But as a Sapphocentric comedy about sexual fluidity and self-made obstacles on the path to love, it’s an affably ingratiating, reasonably polished entertainment.

Reaser makes more of an impression here than she did in the patchy holiday release “The Family Stone.” Allegra conveys jaded intelligence and savvy skepticism, taking wry potshots at herself with her droll theorizing about sexuality and gender politics. But at the risk of betraying the sisters, the comedy sets off the most sparks when Reaser is bouncing off Kirk’s easygoing charm. Too bad she couldn’t have generated a little more heat with the girls.

Puccini for Beginners

Production

An IFC Prods. presentation of an InDigEnt production in association with Eden Wurmfeld Films. Produced by Eden Wurmfeld, Gary Winick, Jake Abraham. Executive producers, John Sloss, Steven Wilson, Jeffrey Roseman, Harvey Rothenberg. Directed, written by Maria Maggenti.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Mauricio Rubinstein; editor, Susan Graef; music, Terry Dame; music supervisor, Jim Black; production designer, Aleta Shaffer; set decorator, Valerie Nolan; costume designer, Antonia Xereas; sound (Dolby Digital), Stuart Deutsch; line producer, Bergen Swanson; assistant director, Solita M. Hanna; casting, Todd Thaler. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 2006. Running time: 82 MIN.

With

Allegra - Elizabeth Reaser Philip - Justin Kirk Grace - Gretchen Mol Molly - Jennifer Dundas Samantha - Julianne Nicholson Nell - Tina Benko Jeff - Brian Letscher Jimmy - Will Bozarth Vivian - Kate Simses
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