Puccini for Beginners


pucciniDid anyone ever argue that being a beautiful, witty, opera-loving, critically-acclaimed-but-poorly-selling novelist who's a New York lesbian is easy? Well, truthfully, in 2007, it doesn't seem like that much of a chore. Even Truman Capote once noted, "There's nothing cozier or safer than a nice little lez-nest."

But for Allegra (Elizabeth Reiser) nothing is ever that effortless.

Take her current relationship with Samantha (Julianne Nicolson). After nine months of extremely heavy dating/delirious sex, Sam wants a commitment. If not a commitment, then how about a simple "I love you." Allegra tries, but she can't get her lips around the words. The result: Sam reverts back to her old boyfriend and an old-fashioned heterosexual engagement.

Distraught at once again being left alone, Allegra lets herself be talked into attending a party where she immediately runs into Philip (Justin Kirk), a philosophy professor, who knows who Puccini is, can speak in multi-syllabic words, and who's actually read her book. Needless to say, a brief wooing period follows, leading to a one-nighter, and then to a full-flung romance that nonpluses Allegra and several of her friends. After all, what is an avowed gal-on-gal lover doing enjoying the male mind and its accompanying genitalia with such relish?

To regain her mental balance, Allegra simultaneously starts dating Grace (Gretchen Moll), a comely, hetero blonde banker she meets at a screwball-comedy film festival in the Village.

Soon, Allegra is tirelessly subwaying from copulation to copulation, enjoying herself immensely, until she discovers that Grace and Philip used to be lovers.

Don't be upset. This is not a plot spoiler. The film actually commences with Grace and Philip making the discovery that they're dating the same member of the "gentle" sex; the rest of the screenplay leads up to that very bamboozling moment with a determined glee.

What director/writer Maria Maggenti--previously best known for her celebrated lez romance, The Incredibly True Adventure of 2 Girls in Love-—has wrought here is a waggish, Annie Hall-esque love letter to New York and to its inhabitants who are willing to blur sexual stereotyping in both their thoughts and beds.

Maggenti often achieves her goal with verve, having Allegra's fellow restaurant-goers, subway conductors, and park sitters letting loose with their thoughts about her cummings and goings in a caustically wry manner.

There are, though, missteps along the way. For example, at one point Grace walks around with a device to prevent car theft because it's too expensive to leave behind, and her auto gets stolen. This is a lame plot device to bring the two gals together, one that a rewrite could have resolved. At another point, two of the leads leave a bookstore without paying for their purchases. Additionally, the secondary straight male characters are portrayed with comic-book depth and less insight. These are all minor quibbles, but for a film that took seven years to pull off, these and other celluloid maladies should have been remedied.

But in the end, Puccini is the joyously refreshing romancer that it tries so hard to be. Its success has a lot to do with its casting directors Philip Huffman, Laura Maxwell-Scott, and Todd M. Thaler, who have peopled both the major and minor roles with aplomb. Even off-off-Broadway legend Helen Hanft has a cameo.

However, it's the three leads that transform this "screwball" comedy into a highly pleasurable affair. The unforgettable Reaser, Kirk, and Mol are all so sexy, gifted, and winsome that you pray they will all wind up under the same comforter for life.

Sadly or gladly, life, Maggenti, and the cinema are never that predictable. - By Brandon Judell

(Puccini for Beginners was a highlight of this year's Palm Springs International Film Festival.)

Writer/director: Maria Maggenti
Costume designer: Antonia Xereas
Cast: Elizabeth Reaser, Justin Kirk, Gretchen Mol, Jennifer Dundas, Julianne Nicholson, Tina Benko, Brian Letscher, Will Bozarth, Kate Simses

Mr. Judell, who's currently teaching "The Image of the Jew in Post-World War II European Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.