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Don’t let the title fool you. “Puccini For Beginners” isn’t about opera. It’s about threesomes.
The film, a self-described “sophisticated screwball sex comedy” by Maria Maggenti (the woman behind “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love”) revolves around Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser), a commitment phobic lesbian who has just broken up with Samantha (Julianne Nicholson). Or, rather, Samantha walks out on her after a night at the opera together.
Samantha hates opera. Allegra loves it. But taste in music is the least of their problems. Samantha, you see, claims she’s not a lesbian.
“I can’t believe you want to break up over some stupid little detail like who’s a lesbian and who isn’t,” Allegra says.
But she does. And she does.
Which leaves Allegra, a struggling writer, all alone.
What’s a heartbroken lesbian to do? Well, hook up with a man, of course. Actually, that’s not an “of course,” but it’s what Allegra does. And while she doesn’t understand why, she has a good enough time – and good enough sex – with Philip (Justin Kirk). So no harm, no foul.
Until she meets Grace (Gretchen Mol), that is. Grace, a cute blonde who just broke up with her boyfriend, seeks solace in Allegra’s arms. What Grace doesn’t know is that her boyfriend, Philip, left her for Allegra. And what Allegra doesn’t know is that Philip is Grace’s ex.
But, my goodness, someone’s bound to find out. So will Allegra get the girl? The guy? Both? Neither? The plot possibilities are endless. As are the opportunities for “Puccini For Beginners” to devolve into, well, a “screwball sex comedy.”
But while the film is at times a bit tedious (there’s a bit too much philosophical patter between these Manhattan academics) and some of the production a bit clunky (the “freeze frame” technique employed to give Allegra an opportunity to pontificate via disembodied narration, for example), “Puccini” is not without its winning moments.
Maggenti, taking a page out of Woody Allen’s book, employs people outside of the main action to comment on what’s going on. While a few fall flat, many work quite well. The two Japanese sushi chefs at Allegra’s favorite restaurant who keep amusing subtitled tabs on her dating life are great. Many of these outside observers address Allegra directly, the woman on the park bench who declares “hell is other people” and the disembodied subway announcer who berates Allegra for trying to carry on with two people, are particularly funny and nicely done. Tina Benko has some shining moments as Nell, Allegra’s ex-girlfriend and best friend.
It’s the people you expect to be fully fleshed characters who disappoint. There are no standouts among the three leads. All of them are likable enough and decent enough in the acting department, but they’re not roles likely to stay with you long after you leave the theatre.
And then there’s the ending, which feels, well, forced. The film’s climactic scene is, well, anti-climactic. We know where the film is headed from the start. But then, there is little that is surprising here. While familiarity can breed contempt, it can also be very comforting. Luckily for those looking for a good date movie, “Puccini For Beginners” falls into the later category.