2½ stars (out of four)
Maria Maggenti's "Puccini for Beginners" is pretty clever indie stuff, a sharp-witted romantic comedy that takes the old Woody Allen screwball style and mood and amusingly applies them to a story about tangled gay and straight relationships in modern Manhattan. Here, the central character is an opera-loving bisexual woman, Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser), who's in some ways a Woody type: not as neurotic as Allen's hapless Romeos but just as hung up on literature and politics.
In the movie, Allegra accidentally tumbles into an unwitting three-cornered relationship with an attractive young long-time couple, Philip and Grace (Justin Kirk and Gretchen Mol), who've just split up. She has simultaneous affairs with both of them--with none of them realizing, for a while, what's going on.
It's an ingenious screwball comedy notion, and the three lead actors, near-perfectly cast, play their roles with relish. As Allegra, Reaser--who was also fine as the immigrant wife Inge in "Sweet Land"--is a quick-tongued smartie with few fashion or sexual hang-ups and an Andie MacDowell-ish smile. Mol (who recently played Bettie Page) has a world-embracing baby-doll glow as Grace, and Justin Kirk oozes the same slouched, vaguely sarcastic charm he had in "Flannel Pajamas." Kirk's "Pajamas" co-star, Julianne Nicholson, is also in the "Puccini" cast as Allegra's no-nonsense ex-girlfriend Samantha, whose leaving precipitates the action.
For this kind of movie, "Puccini" hits the obvious notes--including a girl's-night-out at the opera where nobody digs the music but Allegra, and a poisonous dinner quartet with Philip, Allegra, Allegra's friend (Jennifer Dundas) and Allegra's ex-lover (Tina Benko), who cuts Philip to shreds. But Maggenti is so good with dialogue that, for a while, the obviousness doesn't matter. At least part of Allegra would seem to be based on writer-director Maggenti, which might make it both a wish-fulfillment piece and a cautionary tale of sorts. But there's nothing off-putting, self-absorbed or phony about it.
I enjoyed the movie's middle sections very much, but Maggenti does something oddly destructive in her opening scenes: She gives away a plot twist that she should have saved for much later. And when we return to that same scene toward the end (most of the movie unfolds in flashback) the "spoiler" bothers you all over again. This classic screwball comedy payoff scene misfires twice.
Be that as it may, if you've been famished for sophisticated, intellectuals-in-love Manhattan comedies, "Puccini for Beginners" offers a halfway reasonable substitute. There's a rhythm and swing to the dialogue, a bite to the performances--even though Maggenti doesn't show much visual flair here. That brings the film down, despite her dialogue and the qualities of her actors.
Considering how good "Puccini's" middle often is, it's a shame it falls down fore and aft. But Maggenti, who loves Carole Lombard and William Powell in "My Man Godfrey," is tapping a likable vein here. She should open it up again.
'Puccini for Beginners'
Directed and written by Maria Maggenti; photographed by Mauricio Rubinstein; edited by Susan Graef; production designed by Aleta Shaffer; music by Puccini, others; produced by Eden H. Wurmfield, Gary Winick, Jake Abraham. A Strand Releasing release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:21. No MPAA rating (language, nudity, sensuality and sexual themes).
Allegra - Elizabeth Reaser
Philip - Justin Kirk
Grace - Gretchen Mol
Molly - Jennifer Dundas
Samantha - Julianne Nicholson
Nell - Tina BenkoCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun