Movie Review: Woody Allen’s final, feeblest homage to Classic European Cinema — “Rifkin’s Festival”

It seems so long since I’d reviewed a new Woody Allen film that I had to look up to see whether this was related to his long-time-coming “cancellation,” or the fact that his days of having decent distribution passed sometime during the middle years of the Obama administration.

I lost interest in his “movie a year, whether I have a good idea or not” ouevre somewhere around “Hollywood Ending (2002).” You interview him or read others’ interviews with him too many times, hear about his “process” (an idea for a film scribbled on an index card and stowed in desk drawer), listen to enough versions of his Bergman/Fellini et al fixation and see enough of his films and it becomes impossible to not see what shallow, verbose, pretentious twaddle so many of them are.

A “Midnight in Paris” or “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” seem like aberrations in a parade of dull, portentous, famous writer/painter/composer/filmmaker name-dropping screenplays filled with characters who don’t sound or act like human beings, but rather imitations of other writers’ plays.

I think it was the absurdly over-praised “Blue Jasmine” when I had my epiphany. “He hasn’t been out in public with normal people having normal conversations since the ’70s,” I figured. His most arch scripts sound like Tennessee Williams affectations, without the drawl.

Forty to fifty years of the former Allen Konisgberg working out his college dropout guilt and Man of Letters insecurity by littering screenplays with “I can reference Mahler, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Bergman, see? SEE?” grew wearying, to say the least.

His days of A-list actors yearning to be “summoned” to be in a Woody Allen film are mercifully gone. And without any hint of star power and Hollywood’s ensuing Oscar adoration, what you’re left with is “Rifkin’s Festival,” a flat, lukewarm glass of Spanish sidra without anything to recommend it beyond the lovely San Sebastian scenery and the fact that it is what is alleged to be Allen’s next to last film. Ever.

Playwright Wallace Shawn became a film actor in Allen’s “Manhattan” (1979), gained fame with “My Dinner With Andre”(1981) and earned his “In-con-CIEV-able” screen immortality with “The Princess Bride”(1987). But while the gnomish Shawn has made his mark in tasty supporting parts over the decades, and might seem like the perfect Allen Avatar — dressed in the classic Allen “uniform” — he is dreadfully dull, unamusing and unreal as the title character, a college film professor with pretentions of writing “The Great Novel,” and if it isn’t as good as “Chekhov or Sten-DHAL,” among other immortals he name-drops, what’s the point?

The running gag about this never-finished book-in progress is that every acquaintance of this infamous “grinch” of academic film criticism (He loathes “Some Like it Hot”) mocks him for it, refers to the writing as “turgid” and yet somehow expects him to succeed.

He accompanies his publicist-wife (Gina Gershon) to a San Sebastian Film Festival on the gorgeous northwest (on the Bay of Biscay) coast of Spain, where she tends to clients, including the festival darling Philippe (Louis Garrel), whose “Apocalypse Dreams” is all the rage, and who openly comes on to the publicist.

What’s Rifkin to do but make similar attempts to woo the Spanish doctor (Elena Anaya) who treats his various, increasingly imagined ailments of a hypochondria nature?

Allen “logic.”

The only person to legitimize his medical complaints is a Marshall McLuhan-esque medico who ducks into a conversation with his diagnosis. Cute. Woody’s riffing on a famous “Annie Hall” moment.

Rifkin’s San Sebastian odyssey is related to his New York psychotherapist as a framing device, and these flashbacks themselves include dream sequences.

Because Rifkin dreams in cinema. He imagines himself in “Jules et Jim,” “Breathless,” “Two for the Road,” a dab of “8 1/2,” his childhood a version of “Citizen Caine” with Richard Kind and Nathalie Poza as his parents and “Rose Budnik” as his sleigh, and his reckoning a final chess match with a sarcastic-but-no-funnier-than-anyone-else Death (Christoph Waltz).

“Life is meaningless, but that doesn’t mean it has to be empty. There is a difference.”

The colorless leads and utterly tin-eared script force one to reflect on the many calling cards of an Allen film — black and white opening and closing titles, an early jazz age score, the tinnier the better — which start to seem like crutches, the longer he beats these dead horses (“Cafe Society,” “Wonder Wheel,” “Irrational Man,” “To Rome with Love” anyone? Anyone?).

Even the overheard snippets of film festival-speak, sampled to greater effect in his Fellini-esque “Stardust Memories,” are stale and humorless.

“It’s an all-female version of ‘Lysistrata.‘” Snort.

That tall, dare-we-say “Aryan” blonde? She’d be the “perfect” Hannah Arendt for a filmmaker’s planned Adolf Eichmann biopic. Thank heavens Arendt didn’t live long enough to coin the phrase, “The Banality of Allen.”

When you can’t cast Scarlett, Emma, Penelope or this or that year’s Oscar winners, when you’ve reached Steve Guttenberg on your “Let’s try them” list, that’s the Hollywood universe sending you the only message you need to hear.

The screen compositions are OK, the classic film recreations bland, and the editing is perfunctory and only calls attention to how unnatural almost every acted line, gesture and affectation is.

The perilous thing about this “A Rainy Day in New York” anti-climax/post-cancellation career for Allen is the damage it is doing to his earlier work. Bastardizing his own canon and cranking out crap just because, like Mel Gibson, he is Too Big to Cancel just makes me dread going back to see how over-praised “Match Point,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” or “Bullets Over Broadway” might have been.

And once the air’s gone out of “Midnight in Paris,” can “‘Annie Hall’ isn’t all that” be far behind?

He’s often said “I just want to make a couple of films as great” as those of his idols. Then why fill decades with work that will only have a shot at being widely seen and disparaged on Roku?

Rating: PG-13 for suggestive/sexual material and some drug use, (profanity) and thematic elements

Cast: Wallace Shawn, Gina Gershon, Louis Garrel, Elena Anaya, Richard Kind and Christoph Waltz.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Woody Allen. An MSP release on Roku TV.

Running time: 1:28


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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1 Response to Movie Review: Woody Allen’s final, feeblest homage to Classic European Cinema — “Rifkin’s Festival”

  1. Roger Moore says:

    That must’ve been some big assed rock you’ve been hiding under there, chief.
    “Felix,” for those just tuning in, is the Lone Woody Allen defender left, an argumentative asshat who turns up here and elsewhere to defend him from the mountain of evidence piled up around the little perv.
    No, “Felix,” you don’t get to post more of your BS here.

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