These days, every new Woody Allen film invites the same question: Is it possible to review the film and not its disgraced filmmaker? “Rifkin’s Festival” makes this challenge especially daunting: All the action takes place at the San Sebastian Film Festival, where the film opened this year’s edition. Wallace Shawn stars as a revered but neurotic director with romantic delusions. And if it seems like Allen is really asking for it, there’s one more factor working against the 84-year-old filmmaker: The film is far from vintage Allen and would struggle to find a mass audiences even before it turned against him.
Having said that, “Rifkin’s Festival” is a notch above middling Allen comedies like last year’s “A Rainy Day in New York,” thanks to delightful turns from Shawn and Gina Gershon as well as some zany stabs at film history in a series of black-and-white dream sequences that seem as if they’re lifted from those earlier, funnier days. But there’s no sense in grading Allen on a curve; the movie is a forgettable trifle at best, and at worst, a self-indulgent anachronism in movie form.
Shawn has worked with Allen countless times over the years — from “Manhattan” to “Radio Days” and beyond — but now, he becomes the latest addition to a growing list of actors tasked with recreating the on-screen persona that Allen himself made famous in his initial stretch. The actor’s Mort Rifkin starts his story in New York, talking to an off-screen psychiatrist he rambles on to set up the frothy plot. Mort recalls how he had to stop working on his novel to accompany his publicist-wife Sue (Gina Gerson) to the San Sebastian Film Festival, an invite he has accepted because he believes that she has a crush on a European director that she is representing there. As Mort drones on, “Rifkin’s Festival” quickly becomes another movie about a man filled with worries about his profession, unrequited love, philosophical quandaries, and concern about marital infidelities. Oh, and don’t worry: The jokes about how he’s also a terrible Jew are just around the Spanish corner.
Anyway, it’s flashback time. As Mort recounts what happened to him at the festival, the voiceover takes hold. He goes to San Sebastian worried that his wife is cheating on him, but spends most of the time chasing and obsessing over a chance encounter; in the process, he discovers that much of his life — wait for it — is a charade. It’s the same tried-and-tested plot the director has toyed with for ages.
Despite all this, Shawn delivers a fine performance, and actually works as a more credible Allen stand-in than Kenneth Branagh, John Cusack or Tim Roth. (Let’s try not to think about Jason Biggs.) However, the real star of the show is Gershon, who turns in a performance of real pizazz and charm as Rifkin’s wife Sue. The actress perks up every scene she is in, with a joyful performance loaded with comic ambiguity as she plays off Shawn’s blinkered expression. The contrast works particularly well when Sue doesn’t hide her fascination with Philippe (Louis Garrel), the pretentious director of a European anti-war film (which kind of sounds like a wry wink at Garrel’s real-life filmmaker father, Philippe Garrel). Needless to say, the young Garrel is fun to watch as a lovable lothario.
But the real stars are Allen’s personal hangups. This time, he certainly seems bitter about the state of film culture, even as he continues to revere the classics. More than merely an Allen persona, Mort embodies the filmmaker’s complicated relationship to the world surrounding his vocation: “Film festivals are not what they used to be,” he says at one point, and later reveals that he used to write criticism and teach, resenting all of it. No surprise there.
However, while Mort may be a one-note creation, Allen uses him as a platform for some notable stylistic swings. Mort’s obsession with the medium is a precursor to a series of dreams and imagined realities that see the film go black-and-white. In these reveries, Mort plays out his current marital problems in recreations from famous movie scenes, an initially fun device that quickly becomes tired as it goes on. Mort’s visions include riffs on Buñuel and Fellini, though the strangest tributes go to “Citizen Kane” and “The Seventh Seal,” the latter of which features a hokey cameo from Christoph Waltz that plays like an outtake from the Bill And Ted movies. In Vittoria Storaro’s fourth collaboration with Allen, the legendary cinematographer ensures that the film tributes are playful visual salutes to movies Allen has revered for decades. But the self-referential humor reaches its apex when these interludes arrive at a joke about “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” which seems like a bizarre statement on his own legacy.
Regardless, Allen can’t seem to find his way to a storyline to support these oddball tangents, which even includes an eye-opening tale about Mort fancying his sister-in-law. (No reason to speculate on this: Yes, he’s trolling us.) Eventually, Mort befriends and falls for a local doctor (Elena Anaya), whom he visits after feeling tightness in his chest. Mort is surprised to discover that the doctor is a woman (what decade is he living in?) and that she hates Philipe’s new film. He takes conversation as a sign of interest and decides to conjure up a series of ailments for return visits. This leads to a particularly cringeworthy scene in which Mort takes advantage of the doctor’s distress at her cheating husband by asking her out for a drink.
The rest of “Rifkin’s Festival” is basically tourist porn: As the character wanders the city streets, San Sebastian looks like heaven on Earth, and Allen recreates the festival atmosphere in remarkable detail. But as the film explores San Sebastian — with its marvelous architecture and sprawling beaches — it starts to feel like “Rifkin’s Festival” is content to get lost with its anti-hero rather than trying to find a substantial narrative to support his existence. There’s a strange meta quality to the way the movie drifts around, dipping in and out of a tepid plot. Of course, there’s no surprise here. Like a lot of recent Allen movies, it’s easy enough to figure out the intentions at hand early on. Allen hints at where he’s coming from here with his choice of an opening song — — “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” — a jaunty and light tune for a movie stuck in the same delusional headspace.
“Rifkin’s Festival” opened the 2020 San Sebastian Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.