Ten years have elapsed since writer-director Maria Maggenti brought us the now-classic tale of teenage lesbian love, The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love. Her most recent film, Puccini for Beginners, which is co-produced by Logo, is a screwball romantic comedy about the perils of bisexual dating that opens in theaters today.
The film centers on Manhattan author Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser), whose most clear-cut love is opera. Puccini for Beginners pays homage to that art form in both its structure and tenor — as well as its title, of course. Puccini is divided into a prologue, three acts and an epilogue. It also has all the grand drama and farce of a classic opera, with a fair share of soapy antics tossed in.
The film is polished and entertaining in a breezy way. It is not necessarily challenging to viewers, but it seems to make the point that nobody really wants to be challenged all the time, anyway.
As the film begins, Allegra is being dumped by her girlfriend, Samantha (Julianne Nicholson). Samantha is fed up with the fact that after nine months together, Allegra still thinks it’s too soon to know whether she’s in love with her, so Samantha decides to go back to her former boyfriend.
On the rebound, Allegra meets Columbia professor Philip (Justin Kirk) at a party, and they soon hook up. Commitment-phobic Allegra is horrified when Philip leaves his long-term girlfriend to be with her, but she agrees to a supposedly brief and meaningless affair — which, of course, quickly proves to be neither.
Meanwhile, Allegra also starts seeing an investment banker named Grace (Gretchen Mol) whom she meets at a movie theater.
Allegra juggles both affairs for awhile before learning that Grace is the girlfriend Philip recently dumped, setting the stage for both melodrama and humor.
Some of the film’s comic devices are reminiscent of early Woody Allen, such as Allegra imagining that strangers are giving her advice when in actuality they’re just offering a refill on coffee or announcing the next subway stop. But these devices are well employed and actually very funny. One of the most entertaining scenes features a restaurant full of diners chiming in with their competing views on Allegra’s situation.
Because the story takes place in Manhattan and features 30-something, middle-class, white women lunching and fussing over their own and each other’s love lives, it’s hard not to think of Sex and the City. But Puccini is never risqué, and the sex scenes are brief and more humorous than they are passionate; it’s sweeter than it is sexy.
While the approach is light, Puccini does tackle issues such as gender politics, fluidity in sexual identity and relationships, and how to ultimately free ourselves from self-sabotage. It does this without pretension, other than an occasional pompous comment that’s meant to be seen as just that. And its social commentary is encapsulated in comic moments, such as when a self-identified lesbian suddenly finds herself not only on a date with a man, but — gasp! — ordering the salad.