Movie Review: “In Search of Fellini” finds whimsy, if few laughs

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Of all the attributes to strive to give your comic film, “twee” is the hardest to pull off.

It’s that delicate dose of daft — just shy of cloying  — that lets most efforts in this corner of the cinema down.  When you swing and miss at twee, the result can be tooth-achingly sweet or just plain dull because the silly sweetness you thought you were injecting into your story is too mundane to be magical.

“In Search of Fellini” fails to figure out twee, and more’s the pity, because the fellow who gave his name to the title perfected that — in decades of subtitled films made in his native Italy.

It’s about a young woman’s discovery of the cinema of Italy’s master satirist, farceuer and big screen bon vivant. Federico Fellini was larger than life and his films, from “La Strada” and “La Dolce Vita” to “Eight and a Half,” reflected that. They were brimming with giddiness, layered with oddball autobiography and filled-to-overflowing with a circus sideshow of the silly, the sad, the world-weary and the witty.

After an insanely sheltered life, growing up with a single mother (Maria Bello) in suburban Ohio, Lucy (screen newcomer Ksenia Solo) is ready for a little lunacy. She finds it when she stumbles into a Fellini Film Festival one day in 1993.

Lucy’s been protected from any of life’s harsh realities by Mom, who has gone so far to to send her post-cards from dead relatives or pets, letting her know they’re fine, just to keep the real world from breaking her heart.

And then Mom herself gets sick. A post card just won’t do, this time.

“How’s she going to take care of herself?” Mom’s sister Kerri (Mary Lynn Rajskub of TV’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) wants to know. “Who would hire a 20 year-old who acts like a 13 year-old?”

That’s what sent Lucy into the Big City in the first place, a job ad aimed at luring nubile young women desperate to “work in the movie business.” That pornographic near-miss is how Lucy wound up at the Fellini Festival. And that’s when this fan — she already has the ’60s chic sunglasses, the striped shirt of Gelsomina, wandering waif of “La Strada,”  and (believe it or not) the Vespa scooter of countless Fellini films — finds her quest.

She will go to Italy and meet with the maestro. He’ll know what she should do with her life. A long distance call gets a Fellini assistant on the phone, and that lands her an appointment — or an Italian, Federico Fellini version of an appointment. She can’t take Mom, who is dying. This is all on her.

Unfamiliar with travel, not speaking the language, Lucy experiences a comedy of errors and botched arrivals, and blown Fellini appointments. But the Italian baker she stumbles into in Verona offers her that first taste of alcohol, and great Italian cooking — rum balls.

“Eat, drink, fall in love,” he tells her. So that’s just what she does.

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The cleverest conceit of this half-speed romantic farce is having Lucy hallucinate “signs” from Fellini that she’s on his trail, on the right life path, just by making him her quest. Characters from Fellini films — circus strong men like the one Anthony Quinn played in “La Strada,” beautiful people out of “La Dolce Vita,” the comic sideshow grotesques of almost all his movies — pop into view.

Look for Nancy Cartwright, the “Simpsons” voice actress who co-wrote this, in wig and “uniform” as one of those “Fellini-esque” folks. And have a laugh at Kerri’s description of Fellini  to her credulous sister.

He makes “Italian films, mostly. Nobody watches them. Humanity, togas, depraved orgies, asses…like, jiggling breasts. Lots of them. You know — art.”

Fellini quotes, about reality and realism and dreams, pepper the inter-titles between scenes. All of this serves to remind film buffs that he was a unique presence in the movies, never copied, never rivaled in sheer immersive weirdness and delight.

The rest of the picture? Not all that clever, a little light in the charm department. Lucy’s encounters with Italian men — ranging from romantics to rogues — fail to register.

Young Ms. Solo may look the part of the winsome gamine and manage the fish-out-of-water moments of awkward confusion well enough. But look back at “Letters to Juliet” for a hint of the tone they were going for here, a comparison which only makes that feather-light romance seem like Shakespeare’s lost masterpiece in comparison to “Search.”

Director Taron Lexton fails to get across the madcap sense of chaos Fellini generated, the lackadaisical Italian sense of”urgency” so common in Fellini’s later movies, filled with characters insisting they need it, they have it and that you must embrace it as well if you are to fulfill your life’s dreams, when actually they can’t fathom the meaning of the word.

Lucy’s quest withers even as her assignment, from that rum ball purveying baker, is fulfilled. And “In Search of Fellini” falters as it does, forever grasping at ghosts, never quite getting its arms around “twee.”

1half-star

MPAA Rating: R for sexuality/nudity and language

Cast: Ksenia SoloMaria Bello, Mary Lynn Rajskub

Credits:Directed by Taron Lexton, script by Nancy CartwrightPeter Kjenaas. An Ambi release.

Running time: 1:33

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