Film Review: Rifkin’s Festival

STUDIO: MPI | DIRECTOR: Woody Allen | CAST: Wallace Shawn, Gina Gershon, Elena Anaya, Louis Garrel, Christoph Waltz
SPECS: PG-13 | 88 min. | Comedy romance

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie

Writer-director Woody Allen’s first film following the 2019 collapse of his deal with Amazon Studios to produce and finance his films, 2020’s Rifkin’s Festival finally hits American home screens.

Even long-time Woody fans pretty much know what to expect from the 86-year-old filmmaker at this point in time. Here it comes: It’s another handsome, beautifully-shot tale of jealousy, broken relationships, adultery and hypochondria amidst upper-middle class New Yorkers trying to figure out the meaning of life.

In Rifkin’s Festival things are a little different.  Although it centers on New Yorkers, the film is set in lovely San Sebastian, Spain, the site of the annual San Sebastian Film Festival. And the leading man is an odd choice: Wallace Shawn (TV’s Young Sheldon), the playwright and character actor. The setting and casting likely came from necessity rather than preference due to the revival of previous allegations made against Allen decades earlier and his subsequent loss of support from a number of studios and performers.

The film stars Shawn as Mort Rifkin, an aspiring novel and former film professor who is in San Sebastian accompanying his publicist wife Sue (Gina Gershon, Cagefighter). She is at the festival to help guide the public relations for a young Spanish filmmaker Philippe (Louis Garrel, Little Women) as they team up to push his critically acclaimed new war movie. As Sue and the director get a little too cozy, Mort becomes infatuated with a married Spanish doctor (Elena Anaya, Wonder Woman), who he goes out of his way to see to examine different invented ailments. Eventually, decisions have to be made and life lessons learned as Mort and Sue decide on the fate of their marriage.

As we follow the writer’s romanticized adventures in San Sebastian, Allen taps into Mort’s dreams and fantasies, presented in black-and-white as homages to great films by such legends as Bergman, Truffaut and Godard.

While Shawn, best known for My Dinner with Andre and The Princess Bride, has a likeable persona, his line readings are one-note and his movement rigid, which makes it difficult for him to carry an entire film.  He’s not helped much by Allen’s dialogue, which will serve up a zinger once in a while between all of the stale tropes about relationships and mortality. He and Gershon are mismatched, but not in a particularly funny way. But the rest of the players are fine across-the-board–and there are some casting surprises along the way.  Meanwhile, the cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor), working with Allen for the fourth time, captures the city in all of its shimmering glory.

It’s unlikely Rifkin’s Festival will broaden Woody Allen’s fan base, and it may, in fact, lessen it. It seems that former Allen-aholics have complained about the familiarity of his work for a while now.  Rifkin’s Festival will indeed add fuel to the fire.

For the dwindling number of filmgoers who still look forward to Woody’s latest efforts, enjoy.

I know I did…despite its problems.

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.