One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 69
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Rifkin’s Festival, Woody Allen’s 49th feature film in just about as many years (by my count), opened in theaters and on digital platforms this week on January 28.
The film was completed in early 2020 and premiered at the San Sebastian International Film Festival that September . That it is only now receiving distribution in the filmmaker’s home country carries its own story, which is sadly worthy of as much attention as a standard review by this still-dedicated Woody Allen fan.
There was a time not too long ago when a Woody Allen movie opened in movie theaters across the nation each and every year, frequently in autumn. “Woody Allen’s fall project” was common parlance among the industry and fans for the filmmaker’s upcoming seasonal releases, most of which were issued by major studios like United Artists, Orion Pictures and, later, Miramax, DreamWorks and Sony Classics.
That was the case for 40 years, beginning with the 1977 release of the Oscar-winning Annie Hall and ending with the Coney Island-set Wonder Wheel in December, 2017. Between those two were Manhattan (1979), Zelig (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) Hannah and her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Husbands and Wives (1992), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Match Point (2005), Midnight in Paris (2011) and Blue Jasmine (2013), all of which are among the finest American films released in their respective years.
Allen's previous film, A Rainy Day in New York, was released in the fall of 2020, nearly three years after Wonder Wheel, marking the longest lag time between Allen’s film openings in almost a half century. And it nearly didn’t make it onto American screens due to the 2019 collapse of Allen’s deal with Amazon Studios to produce and finance his films. That came along with Allen’s loss of support from a number of studios and streamers due to the controversy stirred by unproven allegations made against him decades earlier.
Chicago-based distributor MPI Media Group stepped up and released A Rainy Day in New York in theaters and in Blu-ray, DVD and digital streaming formats. Its theatrical rollout found it playing in select theaters around the country, but not a single one in Manhattan, where movie houses remained closed due to Covid. That made Rainy Day the first-ever film directed by Woody Allen not to play in a Manhattan theater during its first-run theatrical release. That’s one helluva dubious distinction (and another in a long-line of sinister achievements made by that damned virus) and a far cry from the nearly 1,100 theaters that showed Midnight in Paris on their screens in 2011.
That’s not the case with Rifkin’s Festival, which was completed in 2020 and has been playing theatrically around the world for the past 16 months, even receiving a release in Kazakhstan in January, 2021.. With MPI once again picking up the theatrical rights, it’s currently playing in 25 theaters nationwide, including Manhattan’s Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village. It’s also available to stream on the major platforms, including iTunes, Vudu, Apple TV, Google Play and Amazon Prime Video, the streaming division of the same company that, again, severed ties with Woody back in 2019.
As for the film itself, though it centers on New Yorkers of a certain societal strata, Rifkin’s Festival doesn’t take place in New York City, but rather in and around San Sebastian, Spain and its aforementioned international film festival. That’s where the movie premiered in September, 2020—a brilliant if unsuccessful marketing ploy).
Wallace Shawn stars as Mort Rifkin, a former university cinema studies professor and late-in-life aspiring writer, who is accompanying his film publicist wife Sue (Gina Gershon) to the fest, where she’s repping a young Spanish director, Phillippe, (Louis Garrel) in the rollout of his acclaimed new war movie. As Sue and Phillippe begin to get overly cozy with each other, hypochondriac Mort finds himself infatuated with a lovely married Spanish doctor (Elena Anaya) and invents a series of ailments so he can continue to see her over the next couple of weeks.
Ideas about the meaning of life and love are bantered about, as decisions are arrived at regarding Mort and Sue and the future of their marriage and lives. Along the way, film lover Mort immerses himself into the spirit of the festival and its host city, as he slips into a number of film-inspired fantasy sequences that serve as homages to filmmaking legends Bergman, Buñuel, Welles, Truffaut and Godard.
Underdeveloped and ultimately unfulfilling, Rifkin’s Festival, in its broadest strokes, has a story and potential for so much more than is on the screen. Woody doesn’t seem to be interested in exploring the ideas he sets forth early on— the effects of a foreign environment on visiting vacationers, the effects and possible potential for personal growth through infidelity, European film sensibilities versus Western ones (Louis Garrel’s Spanish filmmaker loves American films, while American professor Rifkin worships the European greats)—so the story remains static even as we can predict which way it’s going to head.
And the performers simply don’t deliver. Shawn, for years a reliable character actor in dozens of films, is out of his depth as a leading man. His line readings aren’t varied and he frequently shouts his lines when they should be spoken. (Unless, strange as it may seem, that was what the filmmaker was going for, but I rather think that Woody was simply trying to get the job done and didn’t try to adjust his star’s performance.) Everyone else is basically on-target, though there isn’t any razzle-dazzle to be found here. I was pulling for more from Gershon and Anaya—for decades, Woody’s actresses have been the shining performance points in his films—but it’s not to be found.
The fault has to be attributed to what Woody’s laissez-faire direction and screenplay, especially when it comes to his patented shtick about relationships and mortality, which have admittedly become too familiar and repetitive after a half-century of moviemaking (a handful of good one-liners, notwithstanding). Even the clearly affectionate dream scenes, inspired by his renowned love of older and foreign films, are lackluster and sort of lazy.
Sending up the classic “Death Playing Chess” scene in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal again? It’s been parodied and played out so many times by now, even in not one but two Bill & Ted movies. Woody uses a Persona clip as well, but did he really have to revisit Bergman’s most referenced sequence again? Christoph Waltz does deserve kudos for his small role as The Reaper, at one point admitting that he “hates to see some poor schmuck ruin his life over the inevitable.
Still—there has to be a “still”—there’s enough here to keep the curious engaged for an hour-and-a-half. Like A Rainy Day in New York, Rifkin’s Festival isn’t great Woody—not even very good, really—but it’s sustainably engaging and far from his weakest. The filmmaker’s clear love of his occupation and cinema and cosmopolitan lifestyles and foreign lands, particularly San Sebastian, definitely shines through. And the work of master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (here marking his fourth collaboration with Woody) captures the city’s twinkling nights and hazy days with an immersive, woozy luster. So, there are at least pretty pictures to watch even if what’s going down in the story doesn’t do the trick.
And it’s also still indispensable viewing for those who count decades of watching Woody Allen’s films and picking out the many jewels among them as an essential part of their lives as cinephiles. For us, the very existence of the 86-year-old filmmaker’s Rifkin’s Festival and its slot on the distribution calendar is good enough.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.