Puccini for Beginners (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Puccini for Beginners has a lot less to do with opera than it has to do with a sit-com view of life in the Big City. Not that the approach is inherently bad, and director Maria Maggenti has fashioned a reasonably entertaining movie that borrows heavily from Woody Allen, Sex in the City, and Seinfeld. Her view of New York is that of a big neighborhood where there are no crowds, the sidewalks are clean, and people talk to one another. Maggenti, like Allen, has done for New York what so many directors have done for Paris. (And she actually filmed in New York, not in some other city made up to look like it.)

Our heroine is Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser), a committed lesbian with a phobia about commitment. Her latest girlfriend, Samantha (Julianne Nicholson), is on the way out the door because Allegra won't open up to her. It's a pity, because Allegra likes Samantha a lot. But life moves on and for Allegra that means finding a new partner or two. Strangely, the first person with whom she strikes sparks is a man - Philip (Justin Kirk), who is also newly single. For Allegra, whose self-definition is wrapped up in her sexuality, falling for a man is a new experience. But her Sapphic tendencies haven't been submerged, as becomes apparent when she meets Grace (Gretchen Mol), with whom she spends nights when she's not sleeping with Philip. There's a twist, however: Grace is Philip's ex, and Allegra doesn't know this - at least to start with.

Puccini for Beginners is littered with witty dialogue, although some of it is so obviously scripted that it can become off-putting. Granted, no one in the real world talks with verbal rapiers drawn as they do in Oscar Wilde plays, but Maggenti isn't Wilde. The three main characters - Allegra, Philip, and Grace - are likable, if a little self-absorbed. The film makes some valid points about love and commitment, although there's nothing here that could be considered new. Fortunately, it's presented in a way that never feels stale or moldy. And the Sapphic angle is more organic than trendy. This is a critical element - it makes Puccini for Beginners a "romantic comedy" (that happens to feature lesbians) rather than a "lesbian romantic comedy." Maggenti's debut feature, The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, was a lesbian romantic comedy.

The structure is ill-advised. The movie opens with a "hook" that happens three-quarters of the way through the story, then flashes back to bring us up to speed. Unfortunately, the opening scene unveils the big reveal when Philip and Grace find out they're both seeing the same woman. Its placement steals some of the movie's momentum and causes the event, when it is replayed in its proper chronological placement, to come across as flat. Lately, a lot of directors have used this "framing" approach and it is rarely effective (except on those occasions when there's a compelling reason for its employment).

The actors are well matched to their roles. Elizabeth Reaser, whose credits tilt more toward TV shows than feature films, gives Allegra spunk and spirit. Despite the film's various connections to Woody Allen, at least the protagonist isn't a whiny neurotic. Gretchen Mol loses some of the glamour that marked her turn as Bettie Page but she remains delightful and conveys a girl-next-door appeal. (Not that I've ever lived next to a girl who looks like her.) Justin Kirk, another TV/indie performer with a growing fan base, has a disarmingly boyish charm. He's less polished than, say, Hugh Grant, but perhaps more believable as a result.

Puccini for Beginners strives to be a screwball comedy and there are times when it succeeds (as during a cell phone conversation outside a restaurant). More often, however, the humor is subtle, avoiding the kinds of slapstick that turn characters into caricatures. Maggenti's screenplay may be highly dependent upon coincidence and contrivance, but the men and women populating it make it easier to accept. As for Puccini, he gets little more than a cameo. His music forms the skeleton of the score and Allegra is a big fan, but the film doesn't demand or impart any knowledge about opera. As sit-coms go, this one is smarter and brighter than standard TV fare, which may account in part for its appeal.

Puccini for Beginners (United States, 2006)

Director: Maria Maggenti
Cast: Elizabeth Reaser, Gretchen Mol, Justin Kirk, Julianne Nicholson, Tina Benko, Jennifer Dundas
Screenplay: Maria Maggenti
Cinematography: Mauricio Rubinstein
Music: Terry Dame
U.S. Distributor: Strand Releasing
Run Time: 1:21
U.S. Release Date: 2007-02-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1