Well, we have hipster New York locations, lesbians, literary references, and a continuous loop of idiosyncratic characters dining out. It's a flaming cliché pie, yet "Puccini for Beginners" isn't nearly as noxious as it appears. It's comfort food independent filmmaking, and in the grand scheme of things, you could do a lot worse when it comes to obscure art-house comedies.
Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser) is a lesbian who just can't make up her mind. Breaking up with her longtime girlfriend, she embarks on a one-night-stand with Philip (Justin Kirk), which soon turns into potential love. Allegra also meets Grace (Gretchen Mol), a flighty woman who takes to a lesbian affair immediately. Trouble is, Philip and Grace are in a strained relationship, leaving Allegra stuck in the middle of a potential emotional time bomb while she struggles to figure out what she wants from both sexes.
Writer/director Maria Maggenti is aiming for a frothy Woody Allen homage with "Puccini," her first film since the breakthrough Sundance hit, "The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love." In the decade since that picture's release, perhaps Maggenti was tired of the nonsense it takes to get a film off the ground and wrote "Puccini" as a stab to get back on the directorial horse, armed now with a semi-accessible piece of entertainment.
"Puccini" is a little easier to swallow than some gay-themed comedies. It's a lighthearted romp through the pitfalls of a blissfully unaware romantic triangle; a picture far from obnoxious, ignores sexual orientation clichés, and sustained by rolling waves of rat-tat-tat dialogue. It's a humble endeavor, and I appreciated the calm effort from the filmmaker. Her interest is in the three main characters, either for emotional expression or goofy comedy, and "Puccini" stays true to that promise.
Of course, if Maggenti hadn't cast the film so well, I'm positive many of her plans would've been torched from the get-go. I admired the supporting work from Kirk and Mol, essentially playing the stale bread of the romantic entanglement sandwich, but each actor establishing their character with a certain loopy charm. Mol is especially fetching as the relationship dim-wit, lending Grace a pinch of Judy Holiday dizziness for good measure, and landing the film's only smiles.
However, the film belongs to Reaser, who delivers one of those marvelous indie film performances that would never work in mainstream feature. The twist of "Puccini" is that Allegra isn't a likable character in the least. The woman is a self-absorbed serial dater with a laundry list of issues she fails to confront, yet Reaser makes her human, compassionate, and intelligent. "Puccini" doesn't ask the audience to fall in love with these characters, just to consider their romantic disasters for a brief moment. Reaser, through a subtle bit of performing that contrasts well with Maggenti's snappy script, inhabits Allegra's skin, and the viewer comes out comfortable with her personality, even if it blindly leads in the wrong social directions. From a German immigrant in "Sweet Land" to a lesbian slave of New York in one professional year. Reaser is a dynamic actress, and one to watch for in the future.
When "Puccini" gets bogged down in formula, the fun is tainted considerably. It's a New York-centric picture, with mounds of intellectualism and a predictable tourist atmosphere, and I can't think of a worse place to stage a cheapy romantic comedy than this city. Much of the cultural blood that pumps through this picture's veins is stale and has been seen before, and in much better pictures. It saddens me that Maggenti's feels so obligated to run through the same East Coast formula (showoff intellectualism, casual smoking, Zagat-toting restaurant stooges) to feel as though she needs a badge of indie film authenticity. Last time I checked, lesbians were everywhere.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio), "Puccini" was shot with HD cameras, yet the final DVD image shows striking clarity. The darker scenes suffer from smearing and softness, but with the majority of the film captured in daylight, "Puccini" makes for an agreeable visual experience.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track keeps the nonstop dialogue track up front and center, while soundtrack selections and New York ambiance hang out in the surround channels. "Puccini" wasn't made with a vigorous soundtrack in mind, so what's on the DVD is a nice presentation of the film.
First up is a feature-length audio commentary from director Maggenti and editor Susan Graef. Two very articulate women with an extensive professional history between them, Maggenti and Graef share a monumental love for their creation, but are not above pointing out its mistakes. The banter is fast and fluid; if you enjoy the film, it's interesting to see how it was pulled together out of virtually nothing in the way of time or budget. Some highlights:
- Talk about a fast turnaround: "Puccini" was shot in 18 days during September, 2005, and was ready for Sundance in January, 2006.
- Maggenti describes the film as an ode to classic screwball comedies, leading her to include a scene where Grace and Allegra bond outside a revival theater.
- It took seven years for Maggenti to construct her screenplay and sell the film. She comes close to apologizing for all the hackneyed New York lifestyle material, explaining that "Sex and the City" wasn't around when she wrote the script.
- "Puccini" truly is the work of editorial magic. Graef really shaped the picture after the hurried filming schedule left the director without a clear vision for her film. Pointing out scene alterations and reshuffling, it's dumbfounding to learn just how much of the movie was found in the editing process.
Two deleted scenes are presented on the DVD, both expanding Mol's character Grace beyond cutesy punchlines and adorable facial scrunching. The second clip is more of an expanded ending, leaving the film on a much darker note than the theatrical cut.
A theatrical trailer is included, along with looks at "Grbavica," "The Hawk Is Dying," "Poison Friends," and "Backstage."
Structured in a fashion that suggests a three-act opera, "Puccini" doesn't nail those heights of bellow and melodrama that this type of screenwriting roadmap promises. It's a much more level-headed story dealing with sexuality on an adult, respectful level of acceptance, taking more delight in character personality quirks than lamenting their life choices. While not the least bit funny, "Puccini for Beginners" is an appealing film that succeeds as a modest slice of romantic tomfoolery.