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Written and directed by Woody Allen
Starring Wallace Shawn, Gina Gershon and Louis Garrel
Classification PG; 98 minutes
Available on-demand starting Jan. 28
What does anyone want from a Woody Allen film in 2022? First, let’s put aside audiences who can no longer stomach saying the filmmaker’s name. Now, for those moviegoers remaining, does Allen’s familiar shtick hold up? Can he possibly say what he’s been saying for the past half-century in some new or interesting way? Or do we just glumly accept that the same-old-same-old Woody is good, or good enough?
If settling is your speed, then Rifkin’s Festival does the trick, which is no trick at all. A supremely familiar blend of Allen’s favoured themes (the fear of death, the mystery of sex), aesthetic tics (there’s that Windsor Light Condensed title-card font), and wish-fulfillment narratives (the aging film buff scoring the decades-younger sexpot), the comedy doesn’t for one neurotic second pretend to mine new territory.
Which, all right, fine enough, Allen is far from the first filmmaker to replay the hits. But the 86-year-old director could stand to at least polish the material, which in Rifkin’s Festival is so well-worn that it threatens to disintegrate into nothingness.
Set during the San Sebastian International Film Festival (which, wouldn’t you know it, is where Rifkin’s Festival eventually had its world premiere), Allen’s latest focuses on Mort Rifkin (Wallace Shawn), a whiny New York movie critic/Allen surrogate who is attending the event with his younger wife Sue (Gina Gershon), a PR flak for the banal French filmmaker Philippe (Louis Garrel). Sensing a growing attraction between Sue and Philippe, Mort spirals into a black hole of neuroses and self-doubt. Until, that is, he meets an even-younger-than-Sue woman named Joanna (Elena Anaya), a beautiful and witty Spanish doctor stuck in a loveless marriage who somehow might have a thing for Mort.
Listen, it is all so very preposterous, with Allen not as in on the joke as acolytes might like to believe. While there are a handful of decent gags about life in the film-festival bubble, this is also a film in which Allen uses actual cricket noises to drive home a failed punchline. The neuroticism tires, the one-liners flatline (“I just can’t wait till we get to Paris so you can start me on Lipitor!”), and the many cinematic allusions (Mort dreams in the black-and-white language of Bergman, Welles and Truffaut) land with such a dry thud that you begin to wonder whether Allen has watched any new film since 1977.
Shot back in 2019 but only surfacing now, Rifkin’s Festival at least looks like it was fun to film. Everyone is certainly having a wonderful prepandemic time walking around, drinking, gossiping and frequently praising the Spanish tourism board (“There is no better food than at San Sebastian!” one character proclaims to no one in particular). Even the sour-faced Shawn, who specializes in appearing perpetually perturbed, seems to be enjoying the sun. It is almost the exact opposite emotional register displayed by the cast of Allen’s previous film, A Rainy Day in New York, which similarly took a few years to make its way from production to release. (Perhaps A Rainy Day’s performers, including a flailing Timothée Chalamet, sensed that their director would soon become a PR liability that not even Mort’s wife could solve.)
Speaking of the company Allen keeps: Ultimately, the most interesting thing about Rifkin’s Festival is repurposing its cast list as a handy guide to those in the movie business who either don’t fear being associated with pariahs or simply don’t have any reason to care.
Shawn, for instance, neither needs nor desires mainstream approval, while Garrel is a major player only in Europe, where attitudes toward Allen don’t mirror America’s. But there are some familiar faces here who depend on steady Hollywood work and thus curiously risk whatever persona-non-grata-fication might accompany such a collaboration: Gershon, Richard Kind, Steve Guttenberg, and, inarguably Allen’s biggest “get,” Christoph Waltz (who plays a Bergman-y Death who pops up in one of Mort’s nightmares).
Still, if imagining blackball lists is the best entertainment that Rifkin’s Festival can provide, then perhaps it’s time for Allen to retire to San Sebastian, and leave the filmmaking to someone Mort might approve.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.