Dir/scr: Maria Maggenti. US. 2006. 82mins.
Woody Allen famously observed that the greatadvantage of being bisexual was that it doubled your chance of a date on aSaturday night. Maria Maggenti's second feature, thesexual screwball farce Puccini For Beginners, appends the template of Allen's romanticcomedy landmark, Annie Hall, to thefluid, destabilising sexual mores of contemporary New York.
It is highly dangerous toappropriate so many stylistic and comic inspirations from a master, given how suchan approach draws unfavourable comparisons. Yet while Puccini For Beginners is not exactlyPreston Sturges, it was one of the more accessibletitles launched in the dramatic competition at Sundance.
Propelled by an attractive,capable cast, it should score modest returns in specialised, upscale urbanmarkets, combining as it does the insouciance and rude wit of Chasing Amy and the romantic wish fulfilmentof Dating Jessica Stein. While it's wafer thin, with funny situations and moments that are neverquite revealing or memorable, it is still bright, fizzy and easy to watch.
Internationally it will haveminor appeal, with its revenue steams restricted to television pay cable andDVD.
Told in a long flashback andstructured as a three-act comedy with a prologue and epilogue, Puccini For Beginners is the latest workfrom the low-budget digital initiative InDiGent (Tadpole, Pieces Of April). Like those comic pieces, the look is lo-fi: rather its selling qualities are the precise,exuberantly timed writing and sharp performances.
Maggenti's lovely 1993 autobiographical debut work, The Incredibly True Adventures Of Two Girls In Love, refracted many of the sameemotional and personal concerns through the tangled perceptions of young love. Herethe characters are older, tougher, and more cynical in their emotionaldetachment.
"Committed. That's what they call it when they put you in aninsane asylum," reasons Allegra (Reaser),the droll New York novelist whose relationship with the gorgeous Samantha(Nicholson) withers due to her contemptuous attitudes towards monogamy andemotional seriousness.
Thrown by her break-up withSamantha, she falls into an unorthodox three-way affair that has hersimultaneously involved with temptress Grace (Moll) and tweedy literatureprofessor Philip (Kirk).
The major reversal is thatGrace and Philip have just terminated their own conventional six-yearrelationship - natural, given the incestuous, symmetrical world of New Yorkprofessionals.
Surrounded by a rogue'sgallery of secondary figures, straight and gay (marvellously played by Dundas and Benko), Allegra navigates the scenario, deftly playing off Philip'snarcissism and vanity and Grace's nurturing and openness.
The story inventively, ifunrealistically, finds the means to bring all the major characters together ata party announcing Samantha's impending wedding. Maggentiis a natural at farce, and the suddenness and strangeness of the plotcomplications collapse and send everybody reeling.
Elizabeth Reaser is delightful to watch, using her alert features tounderstated and quietly punishing effect. Her discovery of the shared past ofPhilip and Grace is priceless.
But most of all, Puccini For Beginners shows Maggenti less as a stylist and more as a caricaturist whothrows darts at both sides of the cultural and sexual divide. Her movie ends ina safe, protective way that suggests the world is fundamentally aligned. Thefun is watching everybody get to that point.
Eden Wurmfeld Films