MPI Media Group
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Woody Allen
Screenwriter: Woody Allen
Cast: Wallace Shawn, Gina Gershon, Elena Anaya, Louis Garrel
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC,
Opens: January 28, 2022
When you were a young man—or hell, middle age or older—did you ever see an attractive woman sitting alone in a café or library or classroom and think: wouldn’t it be great if I could get through to her, ask her out, and who knows. The situation could develop. But naah. It would never work. She’s way above me in sophistication, in looks. She will either ignore me, laugh at me, or at best try to appease me while brushing me off. This is the question around which the plot develops in “Rifkin’s Festival,” as the principal character picks up a gorgeous doctor– an early-in-the-year entry by Woody Allen photographed in picture-perfect San Sebastian in Spain’s northern Basque country.
Woody Allen does not appear, but no problem. He has a stand-in with Wallace Shawn in the role of Mort Rifkin, film critic and budding novelist. Mort shares Woody’s hypochondria, but this time he uses that neurosis—having a possible heart attack, a ringing in the ears, a bump on his finger–to win a day’s outing with a local doctor, Jo Rojas. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Mort is in San Sebastian with his younger, taller, more assured wife Sue (Gina Gershon), a married couple about as difficult to imagine as is Mort’s date with the doctor. Self-described as a Jewish man from the Bronx, Mort has not yet “found” himself, though he has not given up. Having taught college-level film courses, communicating his love for the classic European directors of the seventies, he is now working on a novel that will never get published. But Mort distracts himself and his wife by thinking the big questions: Why are we here? What’s it all about? This is enough to push Sue, a publicist for a pretentious European director, Philippe (Louis Garrel), into treating her husband as though he were an invisible man; ignoring him at the table as she pursues tete-a-tetes with the director.
I was about to say that you don’t have to be Jewish to act as Woody Allen’s stand-in, but to my surprise, Wallace Shawn is a 78-year-old man born to Jewish parents in New York City. He gained prominence as a playwright (“Marie and Bruce”) and who in my view was never better than when he appeared in the 1981 chamber work “My Dinner With André.” In that latter work, surprisingly, Shawn cannot understand André Gregory’s notions of a philosophic life, as Gregory discusses his world-views in philosophic tones to Shawn’s more-or-less wondering whether the world is, or even should be, more than just a place to enjoy a croissant and coffee.
“Rifkin’s Festival” offers at once a potential commercial for Spain’s travel bureau, a sunny spot in Basque country that looks a lot more inviting than Park City, Utah in January. Its principal feature is a series of dream sequences to match the theme of film festival, as Mort’s dreams are black-and-white recreations of his own dilemmas, perfectly fitting considering his background in film history and criticism. A typical Woody Allen audience would be familiar with the styles he mimics, of the great European filmmakers—Buñuel, Fellini, and Godard. There is even a gag about the mysterious “Rosebud” utterance that ended Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” This time the final sequence is of a sled. Mystery solved.
Some say that writers, scientists, creative people in general do most of their good work below the age of forty-five. If this is true, “Rifkin’s Festival” is watchable enough, but the eighty-four-year-old director does not come close to duplicating the charming, original, solid features like “Manhattan” (Allen at age at 44), “Annie Hall” (the director at 42), or even “Love and Death (Allen at 40).
92 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B-
Acting – B
Overall – B-