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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Puccini for Beginners

Posted By on Wed, Mar 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM

Puccini for Beginners is a close cousin to other sophisticated-New Yorker comic gabfests. Like a Woody Allen flick, Seinfeld sitcom or Sex in the City laugher — or the countless pretenders to their thrones — director-screenwriter Maria Maggenti's first directing gig in more than a decade is filled with pretty, well-educated New Yorkers, all of whom apparently had amazing verbal scores on their SATs.

Maggenti does fairly well with her cast of beauties — those who stand ready with a snappy comeback and academic joke for every situation as they discuss the minutiae of their relationships.

Maggenti's spin on neurotic well-heeled New York is a comedy of sexual identity confusion and commitment phobia. Samantha (Julianne Nicholson) walks out on obscure writer Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser). Allegra, even after nine months with Samantha, declares she's not ready to commit and is still getting to know her. On the rebound, Allegra finds herself entangled with tweedy scholar Philip (Justin Kirk), who himself can't commit to longtime girlfriend Grace (Gretchen Mol). It gets more precarious when Allegra has a chance meeting with the charming Grace and starts a fling with her too. Soon Allegra digs herself a hole when she discovers her lover's recent and messy history.

Maggenti uses the mess to comment on modern relationships and sexual identity, with observations like "bi is in," and the idea that you are either gay or straight is a "totally old-fashioned concept." In the end, characters once confused by the gender of the mates they find attractive seem to find the right partners regardless.

And that's the big difference between Maggenti's streets of New York and those of, say, Woody Allen — Maggenti doesn't let her characters bear the weight of too much unhappiness.

In Puccini, there's tidiness to the tale that flies against the snarky, droll commentary that makes for protagonist Allegra's funniest, best moments. "Monogamy, marriage, the biological clock, fidelity, the missionary position, thank God I don't have to deal with anything like that," she says, mocking Philip. Unfortunately, Maggenti also steers Reaser's Allegra too close to cute. She's sometimes so adorable and naive she'd give Sex in the City's Charlotte a run for her bags of money. To Reaser's credit, the actress juggles the two sides of Allegra well, and comes off extremely likable.

Still, Maggenti could have passed over the softball sensitivity and given Puccini for Beginners more teeth, and taken a bigger bite of that Big Apple.


Opens Friday, March 23, at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to


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