Last night I streamed Woody Allen‘s Rifkin’s Festival, and I’m afraid I can only echo what critics who caught it during last September’s San Sebastian Film Festival said in unison — it’s a bowl of mild, occasionally prickly porridge that’s simply not good enough. I wouldn’t call it a waste of time, but it certainly won’t enrich anyone’s appreciation or contemplation of their all-too-brief time on this planet. And that’s too bad.
Shot in the summer of ’19 against a simulation of the San Sebastian Film Festival (which actually happens in September), it’s a pallid, lamenting, ummistakably dreary sitcom about being cuckolded while shuffling along with a septugenarian sourpuss attitude. It putters and schmutters with occasional dreamscape tributes to classic ’60s cinema (Fellini’s 8 1/2, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, Bergman’s Persona and The Seventh Seal), which fit into the milieu, of course, but in a decidedly tired, “no longer part of the world” way. The film never bores but never really turns on the current. And I’m sorry for that.
It’s about Mort Rifkin (Wallace Shawn), a crabby 70something Jewish gnome from Manhattan who used to teach film, and his having accompanied Sue (Gina Gershon), his fetching 40something film publicist wife, to the festival, and how he immediately senses a current between Sue and her top client, a younger, mildly pretentious director named Philippe (Louis Garrel).
Rather than skulking around and seething with suspicion, fortune smiles when Mort visits a beautiful 30-something doctor named Jo (Elena Anaya) and promptly falls head over heels. No, Mort doesn’t make any overt moves (thank God!), but he does get involved in her turbulent marriage to a tempestuous artist Paco (Sergi López, whom I haven’t laid eyes on for a good decade or so). Mort talks to Jo (and to the audience) about working on an ambitious novel, but if you haven’t written your big novel by age 77 you should probably hang it up.
Vittorio Storaro‘s cinematography constantly glows. Every shot of San Sebastian is luscious and inviting.
After seeing the Rifkin’s Festival trailer last September I wrote that casting Wallace Shawn as a dismayed romantic protagonist is not what anyone would call audience-friendly. Shawn is pushing 80, for God’s sake, and the size of a Hobbit. By any semi-realistic biological standard he’s “out of the game.” It would be one thing if, say, Allen had cast the 75-year-old Steve Martin as a WASPy version of Mort. But it’s completely impossible to accept a bald Bilbo Baggins as a hormonal stand-in, and especially one who walks around with his mouth half open all the time. It was difficult enough to accept Shawn as Diane Heaton‘s ex-lover in Manhattan, and that was during the Carter administration.
I wrote that Shawn’s character “would naturally feel wounded and disoriented by Gershon’s temporary infidelity, but it’s all but impossible to relate to him in this context. My first reaction was that this is like John Huston casting Lionel Barrymore in the Humphrey Bogart role in Key Largo.”
I’ve been saying this for years, but if the 84 year-old Allen intends to keep churning them out he needs to work with a younger writing partner — some 40something whippersnapper who could punch up the material and lend a certain 21st Century edge. There’s nothing diminishing about such a scenario. Allen worked with Marshall Brickman on Annie Hall, after all, and with Douglas McGrath on Bullets Over Broadway.