Rifkin’s Festival review – Charming and geriatric

Rifkin’s Festival review – Charming and geriatric

If you didn’t already know the plot of Rifkin’s Festival you could probably guess it if you are at all familiar with the work of Woody Allen. This time around, the Woody surrogate takes the form of Mort Rifkin, played with geriatric gusto by the wonderful Wallace Shawn. Mort and his press-officer wife Sue (Gina Gershon) are attending the San Sebastián Film Festival. Sue will be following the red carpet and interview antics of a hip, young filmmaker, while Mort, a jaded writer who plans to one day produce a great novel (if only he could capture absolute perfection), wanders the fest by his lonesome, wondering whether or not Sue is having an affair.

At the same time Mort is wondering if Sue is having an affair, Sue is wondering whether or not she should go ahead and have an affair. At the same time Sue is wondering if she should go ahead and have an affair, Mort is using any excuse he can find to visit a sexy doctor (Elena Anaya) on whom he has a severe crush — one that, based on circumstance, simply couldn’t ever come to fruition no matter how hard he tries. This quartet of sophisticates waxes philosophical on relationships, fidelity, the human condition, art, film, etc. Ya know, Woody Allen stuff. It’s light, standard fare that falls somewhere in the lower middle of Allen’s filmography.

As he is now an octogenarian, it’s no surprise that Allen’s typical quippy dialogue comes across at a slower pace, and while the material is generally pretty sharp, the relaxed delivery robs it of the acerbity it requires to evoke the thoughtful laughter inherent to a lot of Allen’s prior work. This deceleration is to be expected as we age, and Shawn proves to be the right guy to handle material at such a pace. As someone in his late thirties, and who has seen a ton of Allen’s work, the film’s breeziness occasionally threatened to lose my attention (I held on, but it was close), but I’d imagine an older crowd would really dig it. There’s no new ground being broken here, but goofy lil Wallace Shawn waddling around gorgeous Spain while his own voiceover pontificates on just about every classic piece of Allen-branded philosophy is far from a recipe for disaster. For the most part it’s a weightless delight, but it’s one we’ve seen done better multiple times before, and by the same filmmaker to boot.

If Midnight in Paris was Allen’s way of writing dialogue from the POV of his favorite writers, Rifkin’s Festival is his way of paying homage to the films and filmmakers that have influenced his vast body of work. Throughout the film Rifkin dips into dream sequences, each of which plays as a direct reference to something like Breathless or Jules and Jim. The reverence for the source material is apparent, but the product is a bit half-baked. Firstly, I don’t know an audience that would be quite as enchanted to watch these sequences as Allen certainly was to shoot them, and secondly, not much is really done with the device. In one example, Mort and Sue are in bed recreating the famous “under the sheets” scene from Breathless. Our characters engage in a conversation similar to the one Belmondo and Seberg shared so many moons ago, and when the sheets come up, Mort is the first to question why. It’s a playful bit of self-awareness that only hits as hard as the material will let it, which is to say just a little bit. In another, Mort flashes back to his childhood a la Citizen Kane, when he rode on a sled named Rosebudnick.

Light chuckles mixed with “I recognize that” are the name of the game. Just when I thought the film was so light as to make no impression, a fantastic sequence referencing The Seventh Seal closes out the film with a big laugh and a fun performance from Christoph Waltz, naturally playing Death himself.

The rub is this: You already know if you’re going to see this movie. If you are a fan of Allen’s work, you will likely be pleasantly distracted for 90 minutes. If you aren’t a fan, you’re not even reading this review. When I go to see a band perform live, how well they play is a merely secondary to my enjoyment. What I like to see is a group of performers having fun. It’s infectious, and it makes any melodic errors easy to forget and hard to even notice. Same goes for film. Rifkin’s Festival may not be Allen’s best, but it’s very clear that he is having some fun in his later years, even if his infamous neuroses haven’t waned an ounce.

Written by Woody Allen

Directed by Woody Allen

Starring Wallace Shawn, Gina Gershon, Louis Garrel, Elena Anaya

Rated PG-13, 88 minutes (like that Pacino movie)

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