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Puccini for Beginners

Opera lite

Maria Maggenti's romantic comedy, Puccini for Beginners, upends conventions about gender roles while relying on tried-and-true notions of fidelity and commitment to fuel its screwball storytelling.

Struggling novelist Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser) finds herself in some classic Woody Allen moments -- psychoanalytical interior monologues included -- when a long-term relationship unexpectedly ends.

Describing herself as "narcissistic, passive-aggressive, self-absorbed, and incapable of connecting," she's sexy and intellectual but not in a pedantic or arrogant way. Allegra is a romantic at heart who is blissfully unaware of the reality around her. Despite what could be annoying flaws, however, she succeeds as the film's centerpiece. Reaser makes her character totally sympathetic; you want to root for her, not strangle her.

Nonetheless, her girlfriend Samantha (Julianne Nicholson), dumps her for an ex-boyfriend because, she charges, Allegra cannot muster even an "I love you" despite nine months of dating. Shortly thereafter, Allegra's straight girlfriend, Molly (Jennifer Dundas), convinces her to go to a party where she meets Philip (Justin Kirk), an intellectual on her bookish level who -- conveniently enough -- is experiencing a rough spot in the dead-end relationship he's having with his long-term girlfriend, Grace (Gretchen Mol).

One day Allegra meets a charming straight woman who has just broken up with her boyfriend. She may even be on the verge of trying out some heavy female bonding. It's none other than Grace herself. You know this has to happen; this is a screwball comedy, after all.To maintain the comedic tension that propels Allegra into this ill-fated love triangle, the script keeps the identities of Philip and Grace artfully hidden from one another. Allegra never puts two and two together, as it were, until the house of cards crumbles.

Set in three acts, with a prologue and epilogue, Puccini for Beginners plays out like something you might find on the stage, except that it makes beautiful use of New York locations -- primarily Greenwich Village. Director Maggenti says she based some of the characters on composites of her own "lovers, ex-lovers, friends, former friends." It shows. The characters convey a good sense of interconnectedness -- something that television series, for example, take many episodes to evolve. Perhaps it helps that this film was seven years in the making, because the story had time to stew. It's all the more amazing then that the role of Allegra was cast only a week before shooting began.

Assisting the film's comedic tone are myriad "Ally McBeal" moments when the world sends Allegra a Big Message that her inner voice has hitherto ignored. Then there are the two sushi chefs at her favorite restaurant who comment on the state of her love life as they calmly roll their temaki in the background. There are plenty of well-written, funny lines throughout the movie to keep things going.

The film's characters bypass gender roles and stereotypes of sexual orientation. On the one hand, this "take me as I am" attitude is refreshing; on the other hand, it ignores the option of true bisexuality -- or even the real consequences that befall a real lesbian who has sex with a man.

Considering that the director describes her film as an "amalgamation of 70s feminism, 80s identity politics, and current retro gender stereotypes," Puccini for Beginners lacks the sexual political discourse that's fun to talk about with friends afterwards. Rose Troche's Go Fish did that admirably a dozen years ago when such films were much less common than they are today.


Rating: 3 out of 5 stars