By Pete Vonder Haar | January 26, 2006

Allegra Castiglione (Elizabeth Reaser) has a bit of a problem. She’s recently separated from her girlfriend Samantha, who left her to return to her old boyfriend, and finds herself improbably attracted to Columbia professor Philip (Justin Kirk), himself in a dead-end long-term relationship. Philip, electing to follow his heart for once and pursue this unlikely romance, breaks up with his girlfriend Grace (Gretchen Mol). Grace, heartbroken and with nothing much to lose, also coincidentally meets Allegra at a movie and, after some initial hesitancy, starts dating her as well. Neither Grace nor Justin is aware of the development, and – more importantly – Allegra is ignorant of the love triangle of which she herself is the anchor point.

“Puccini for Beginners” is writer/director Maria Maggenti’s second time helming a feature, yet she demonstrates a lighthearted touch with the camera. The script is smart, as befits a former Philosophy major, yet never talks above the audience, and it deftly weaves together the themes of classical feminism, political correctness, and the current return to traditional gender roles. Fortunately, we dance around these ideas instead of getting beaten over the head with them. No easy task when a running gag involves Immanuel Kant.

Kirk and Mol are convincing, easily inhabiting their respective roles. Mol, with this and the lead in the upcoming Bettie Page biopic, is poised to finally fulfill her early promise and not just be viewed as Kate Hudson with a bigger chest. But it is Reaser, playing Allegra, who’s definitely the one to keep your eye on. She’s previously been relegated to TV parts and supporting roles on the big screen, but she manages to bring authenticity to a role that could’ve been as clumsily handled as her quasi-lesbian counterpart who elects to bat for the other team in “Chasing Amy.” Maggenti at least makes some effort to explain why a lesbian would make the decision (something which biological imperative tends to deny) to sleep with a man. The supporting cast of her impossibly good-looking lesbian friends are fine as well, especially Tina Benko as the acerbic Nell.

If “Puccini for Beginners” has a weakness, it’s the overuse of voice-overs and the annoying habit Maggenti has of allowing peripheral characters to directly address Allegra about her problems, problems which they would obviously know nothing about. This is a shout out to her fondness for classic screwball comedies, but it wears thin quickly. Aside from that, this a fun little film, and one deserving of a wider audience.

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