puccini for beginners (1996)

puccini

Hello, fans. We acquired two more of you in the last week, so I figured I owed a little update. Chris and I are currently in Hartford, CT, home of the Mark Twain House and one of the most confusing crosswalk situations I’ve ever navigated. Anyway, we’re doing a little bit of regional theater, a moderate amount of substance abuse and a lot of shopping. But I decided to take a pause from pointless consumption today in exchange for a culture infusion which would also allow me to remain in sweat gear until my six thirty PM call. Enter Puccini for Beginners, a film about a commitment-phobic lesbian writer with questionable sexual mores and a lack of purpose. That equalled no-brainer to me this afternoon, as I struggled to bathe my dog and consume an entire box of mac ‘n’ cheese all by my lonesome.

Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser) is a once-successful novelist who’s just broken up with her hot and (as we’re reminded several times) tall girlfriend, Samantha. Something about nine months together, you can’t say you love me, I might not be gay and I’m going back to Jeff, etc. Our heroine is of course devastated to the point of phone stalking and binge eating, but quickly meets a new object of affection at a bourgie Manhattan social gathering. The problem: he’s a man! After a few too many cocktails and a drunken proposition that involves dangling her Lesbian, But Willing status over his Progressive Liberal Male’s head – each one of them – Allegra throws up on Phil’s shoes and he’s smitten. Around the same time, leading lady has another meet-cute with an investment banker who secretly dreams of becoming a professional glass blower, Grace (played adorably by Gretchen Mol). And the big twist – are you ready for it? – Phil and Grace are a couple! In a loveless long-term relationship! And they break up! And they both fall for Allegra! And thing get really messy!

It’s not a bad premise actually and I found myself fairly entertained for eighty minutes. I was honestly expecting to file this under “Not Gay, But Boy Would I Like to Cuddle/Fuck Gretchen Mol.” Lucky for me, this film was met with very little outrage, as it is ultimately innocuous and even features some fun cameos from downtown folk like Babs Davey and Lucy Sexton. Director Maria Maggenti, the same gal who brought us The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, is Woody Allen-aspirational here in that the film serves as a two-fold love story: the one that humans have with each other and the one that they have with the Big Apple. But for a film largely shot in the West Village, it unfortunately does nothing to draw attention to the area’s iconic gay institutions. Why no beers at Julius or a bad dance party at Henrietta’s? The guilty pleasure of a late-night cruise at Cubbyhole? It feels as though a nostalgia opportunity was missed here as the film aims to entertain such a wide swath, shooting for the hearts and minds of a status quo white upper-middle class. It applies the same strategy that “Friends,” “Seinfeld, “Girls” and countless other peons to NYC have – in a fantasy world it’s just one, big playground where romance can’t exist within a class conscious framework. Maybe I should be happy that these little gems are guarded like a best-kept secret. But Puccini never transcends generic rom-com expectations and it seems something of a pity.

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