The sapphic romantic comedy Puccini for Beginners wants to be a Woody Allen movie in the worst way. Writer/director Maria Maggenti winds up a similar cast of brainy, tweedy types and sends them wandering down burnished Manhattan streets, accompanied by jazzy soundtrack music and whimsical title cards.
You can appreciate Maggenti's desire to take a story about pushing the sexual envelope and wrapping it in some warm, comfy cinematic trappings. But Woody Allen comedies taste stale even when Woody Allen does them these days, and Puccini for Beginners' reliance on rom-com clichés and some wheezy bedroom farce muffles the film's message about sexual identity.
Things start unpromisingly when our heroine, Allegra (mousy Elizabeth Reaser), begins the film with a familiar formulation. "There are two kinds of people in the world," she says, "The kind that feel with their hearts, and the kind that feel with their heads. I was the head-feeling kind." Putting aside the awkward imagery, Allegra behaves like the opposite of a head-feeling person by hooking up with Philip (testy Justin Kirk), her first man in years, and subsequently cheating on him with Grace (zesty Gretchen Mol), a straight woman. Allegra doesn't realize that Philip and Grace have a connection until zany hijinks ensue.
Nodding at operatic passions, Puccini for Beginners explores some of the gray areas of erotic connection and sexual stereotyping. Allegra doesn't seem to realize that if she's a lesbian, sleeping with men and cheating on women won't solve her commitment issues, but at least Maggenti (director of 1995's The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love) makes the complexities seem plausible. At best, Puccini for Beginners addresses similar bedroom border crossings as the film Chasing Amy, only from a woman's point of view.
Puccini for Beginners makes a running joke of bystanders voicing Allegra's thoughts, a device that amusingly conveys the notion of New York as one big clubhouse before it turns gimmicky. Ultimately the film values mild, predictable humor over uncomfortable insights into relationship problems. Like most romantic comedies, Puccini for Beginners treats "commitment-phobia" as an easily cured mental condition. All you have to do is commit to someone – practically anyone, it seems – and presto, your romantic problems will disappear in perpetuity.
Things are seldom so simple in real life, but why should Puccini for Beginners mirror reality when it's easier to imitate other movies?
Puccini for Beginners, *****. Directed by Maria Maggenti. Stars Elizabeth Reaser, Justin Kirk. Rated R. Opens Fri., March 2. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.