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REVIEW | More Tales of the City: Maria Maggenti’s “Puccini for Beginners”

REVIEW | More Tales of the City: Maria Maggenti's "Puccini for Beginners"

Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser) is a thirtyish lesbian author living the sanitary, Whole Foods la vie de boheme of sitcomized contemporary Manhattan. Having just been dropped by a long-term girlfriend over commitment issues, she doubly rebounds – into both sweet, pie-faced Grace (Gretchen Mol) and of all things, a man: tweed-chic (unconvincing) academic Philip (Justin Kirk). A juggling act ensues as our heroine tries to keep everyone’s feelings from being bruised; unmemorable bit players go by (Bitch in a Powersuit and a Hetero Guy with a Football), and the whole thing’s over before you feel a thing. I can imagine finding a ticket stub in a disused jacket months later and staring quizzically at the title: “Puccini? Did I see this?”

The film’s solipsism is unabashed: the city’s entire attention surreally swirls around Allegra’s infidelities-the staff at a Japanese restaurant keeps tabs on her dates, strangers on the subway are ready with opinions on our heroine’s tangled love life. Amid such stultifying wackiness, “Puccini” deliberately positions itself in the lineage of the screwball comedy (Allegra and Grace meet-cute at a retro screening), but any given episode of in-its-prime “Gilmore Girls” does that legacy more honor, not to mention shows more “filmic” chops.

Accentuate the positive: In a role predestined to disappear into a miasma of winsome self-regard, Reaser is as good as anyone could be. She’s a young actress in the best “indie starlet” tradition, that is, a subtle rebuke to the big, parodic, horsy globs of lip gloss usually fobbed off as moviedom femininity. Cute, compact, and in the teasing upper registers of imaginary attainability, Reaser puts a nice neurotic cringe in her smile that crumples up the ends of her line readings. Given the proper material, she could be a very smart light comedienne; given that she is currently shooting an Ed Burns film, this will not happen soon.

Director Maria Maggenti – who last helmed 1995’s “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love,” a miniature-scale hit-describes the setting of her film as “a very romanticized New York of people who care about books and music and conversation.” On the surface, this seems like a noble undertaking; as a groundswell of simplistic hem-and-haw “realism” has eroded articulacy in independent moviemaking, a lot of us have missed the company of characters who don’t limp through their sentences on crutch words. But the idea of urbane literacy that’s written into “Puccini” exists strictly on a fatuous name-check basis (Allegra’s lust for opera, a badly written exchange on Philip Roth, a hand-me-down gag on hyper-specialized thesis titles, a carefully positioned issue of literary journal “n + 1”). Watch, for contrast, Whit Stillman‘s “Metropolitan” and see how that film’s highbrow allusions – to Buñuel, Fourier, Jane Austen, Lionel Trilling – don’t merely congratulate a viewer on name recognition, but shed specific little details of time, place, feeling, character.

Still, “Puccini” has a healthy sense of its own inconsequentiality, a virtue that can forgive much. It’s kind enough to wish all its cast a happy ending, and was made cheaply, with what I can only imagine were the best of intentions: busking for a little box-office in trade for a dash of flaky entertainment. But what kind of weight can the novelty of seeing queer lives plugged into once-heteronormative romantic comic tripe carry in this post-“Another Gay Movie” era (I am only half-kidding about that assignation)? I have my doubts as to whether the audiences Maggenti last catered to, in the bygone days of “Kiss Me Guido,” will still be waiting for her.

[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]

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