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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Upscale ‘Puccini for Beginners’ almost entertains

Published: October 28, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

Movies, in many cases, are a way to get away from the stresses and demands of real life. Why deal with a pressing issue when you can sit on a couch and watch a movie about people who have sillier issues that will inevitably get resolved? Or watch a movie about people with worse issues but who still have hope for a better future by the end of the film? Movies give people a way to escape by presenting other situations in which the viewer could potentially be instead. It is for this reason—and this reason alone—that the movie “Puccini for Beginners” is a somewhat enjoyable film.

This film begins with Allegra (Elizabeth Resser), along with her girlfriend Samantha (Julianne Nicholeson) and two other friends, watching an opera at the Met. It zones in on each of their thoughts and differing opinions of the opera, ranging from “The Met must be sorely mistaken if they think I paid $250 for this?” to “Don’t fall asleep, don’t fall asleep.” This sets the environment of the movie very quickly; opera and those who pretend to dabble in opera are pretty high class. This isn’t a film with which everyone can connect. It appeals to the Upper West Side born-and-raised, Whole Foods shopping, liberal arts college graduate. It is a very specific niche of people, but one that appeals to many in this day and age—think a more highly educated “Friends.”

The next scene depicts Allegra breaking with up Samanatha. Samantha talks about her hatred of the opera and how she can’t stand her friends trying to one-up each other in intellectual discussion. This isn’t a problem for long, though, as Allegra meets Philip (Justin Kirk) and Grace (Gretchen Mol) and finds budding romances in both of them, even though Allegra is a proud, self-reminded lesbian. The main premise of the film is Allegra trying to decide between the two of them. This feeling is further amplified when she discovers that when Philip and Grace talk bitterly about their most recent exes, they are referring to each other.

Though a very typical love triangle, the movie is engaging because of how lavishly each character lives, even if it’s in somewhat shallow ways. Allegra is the author of a recent book that won some sort of award, Philip is a graduate student at Columbia who’s recently gotten a teaching job at U Chicago and Grace, though not as academic as the others, has a lush enough means of living to be interested in glass blowing. Whenever Allegra and her friends are seen hanging out, they spend their time in various restaurants in Manhattan trying out different types of wine. All of them have achieved some sort of elitism: They are educated and bide their time with intellectual conversations and figuring out how else to furnish their apartments and, oh yeah, what they are going to write about in their next books.

What’s more, Allegra’s “conflict” is not really a conflict, something that is recognized in the film. Her only problem is that she is dating two people at once and that she has to choose between one of them. That, in a nutshell, is why the movie isn’t as successful as it could be. The characters have no true depth except for the achievements they readily list off. Instead, the one thing keeping the viewer going is enviously watching their lives play out, wanting to be Allegra or Philip or any one of them. As a result, when the movie ends and Allegra ultimately makes her decision, the viewer can’t help but feel somewhat disappointed—can that really be how the movie ends?

Elizabeth Resser as Allegra, for one, at times seems like a very “forced lesbian.” Though she proclaims at least 20 times in the film that she is in fact a lesbian, she seems to have more chemistry with Philip than she does with Samantha or Grace. In fact, her interactions with Samantha and Grace seem instead sort of like a slumber party mindset—her lesbian sex scenes, to say the least, are not the most interesting. Her character overall, however, is very likable in that her charm lies in her faults. Samantha has a fear of commitment! She doesn’t really like Grace or Philip so keeps them around until she gets her mind! Though silly, it makes her character more realistic.

The Woody Allen-esque parts of the film, which involve random people on the street responding to her monologues, also help strengthen her character and the film overall. At one point, Samantha is sitting on a park bench with a stranger and says to herself, “It’s hell being alone,” to which the stranger responds, “No honey, hell is other people.” Sometimes, these asides work to add humor to the movie while others add meaning. The stranger’s Sartrean reference makes complete sense in the context of Allegra’s relationship(s) and, best of all, is a reference the viewer can feel good about understanding.

“Puccini for Beginners” is a feel-good film for allowing the viewer to have a peek into Allegra’s life in all its uncomplicated glory. When the movie ends though, the viewer does not have much onto which to hold, except for a tiny bit of jealousy that goes away once it’s remembered that it was only a movie.