“I’ve had a chance to look at my life over the last few weeks, and I realize I’ve made a lot of bad decisions.”
This line, delivered by Wallace Shawn, toward the end of a trailer for Woody Allen’s “Rifkin’s Festival,” premiering at the San Sebastian Film Festival September 18, would appear to be the one lucid and self-aware moment in the entire film.
Allen, who has of late frittered away his reputation with ill-advised comments surrounding the #MeToo movement and a parade of films that resemble nothing so much as all-white, Wayans-style parodies of Woody Allen films, appears to have outdone himself once again.
The tropes are all here. A nebbish protagonist (Shawn), an exotic setting (Spain, again) and the blithe infidelities that seem to come standard with these monied Allen types.
Needlessly expository narration feeds us — and Shawn’s character’s analyst — the film’s conceit. He was accompanying his wife (Gina Gershon) to the San Sebastian Film Festival, where she was doing press and where she proceeded to have a fling with a director (Louis Garrel). We have pricey restaurants, dinner parties, somnolent Spanish guitar, beaches and cabanas and long strolls through plazas amid Shawn’s persistent grousing about his place in the universe evidently prompted by an unbearably beautiful excursion. Shawn actually bellows, “Who in the world am I?”
You ever sit through someone’s tedious — if breathtaking enough to incite envy — slide presentation of his trip to Europe? Imagine that paired with the dullest psychotherapy session ever. The presentation is dismissible enough, without the addition of title cards proclaiming “Life is like a movie,” “Sometimes it’s a comedy,” “A drama, “A romance,” “But most of all it’s a mystery.”
When Gershon tells Shawn that Garrel is a “phenomenal bongo player,” and Shawn responds “not since Neil Armstrong walked onto the moon,” I saw the void.
How could one of our most erudite playwrights — the scion of the legendary New Yorker editor — be reduced to such abysmal dialogue? Does Woody Allen have kompromat on these people, or do they merely stick by him out of a stubborn allegiance in the face of a broader culture war?
Don’t worry though, it appears that Shawn, between his existential breakdown, will have an affair with a sexy Spanish doctor (Elena Anaya) several decades his junior and be witness to an artist having a tantrum in his atelier. Hot-headed Spaniard, May-December romance. The auteur continues to thrill and surprise.
It’s hard to defend Allen on the merits of his work at present. I’ve been through this before. To be fair, a trailer is just a trailer, but typically it will sample the best parts of the film in an attempt to make you want to see it. If this is the best we’ve got, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Rather, it’s like watching the final scenes in “Annie Hall,” when two actors recite verbatim dialogue that Alvy and Annie delivered earlier in the film, rendering it weird and stilted and, finally, pretentious.
This is Allen through a carnival mirror and there’s not much to recommend it. But, with a global pandemic and no news yet of a U.S. release, we can at least forget it exists and take comfort knowing there’s no shot at an Oscar win.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.