Movie Review: RIFKIN’S FESTIVAL (2020): Wallace Shawn Stars in Woody Allen’s Clever But Rather Lighthearted Comedy

Rifkin Festival Review

Rifkin Festival (2020) Movie Reviewa movie directed by Woody Allen and featuring Wallace Shawn, Gina Gershon, Elena Anaya, Steve Guttenberg, Tammy Blanchard, Sergi Lopez, Christopher Waltz, Andrea Trepat, Michael Garvey, Louis Garrel, Cipriot Luz, Richard Kind and Nathalie Poza.

Woody Allen used to release a movie every year, and a star-studded cast was always a given with his photos. In his last, Rifkin’s Party, the assembled cast isn’t quite as starry as usual (for obvious reasons) though there are some talented performers in the film nonetheless. I don’t think casting is the real problem of Rifkin’s Party although with more prominent actors in the film, it may have gained more publicity. A central demerit for the new film comes from the fact that Allen is on very familiar ground here. If you’ve seen any of Allen’s previous comedy films, you’ve pretty much seen this one. That being said, it’s nice to see Wallace Shawn in a starring role (as Allen’s replacement) and Gina Gershon is a talent we see too little of in movies. So in this regard, Rifkin’s Party can be a piece of curiosity for their fans.

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At the start of the film, we meet a married American couple attending the San Sebastian Film Festival. Wallace Shawn is Mort Rifkin, an aspiring film teacher/novelist, and Gershon is his wife, Sue, who is a publicity agent. There is a young and handsome director named Philippe (Louis Garrel) whom Sue also represents at the festival. This will lead to plot complications as it becomes easy to suspect that Sue has taken a liking to Philippe. But, Mort is not a saint either. When given the opportunity to pursue a female doctor he meets, Mort is more than up to the task of being uncharacteristically pushy in trying to get an appointment with her. The female doctor, Jo Rojas, is played to perfection by the film’s greatest asset: Elena Anaya whose role is the film’s most relatable character. It turns out that Dr. Rojas is from New York, just like Mort, and they form a bond based on similar interests that develop as the film’s story unfolds.

A hysterical first joke has a reporter asking a filmmaker if all the orgasms in a movie were special effects. It’s amusing observations like that that make Allen’s film more watchable than it has any right to be. Allen still has his comedic side even though the themes he works with in this new picture have been redone and redone (mostly by Allen himself) before.

We spend a lot of time focusing on the fact that Mort’s (Steve Guttenberg) brother took away Mort’s original love of life, Doris (Tammy Blanchard) and we also get a glimpse of Mort’s marriage to Sue which is predictable on shaky ground in typical Woody Allen fashion. When the new movie draws attention to Mort and Rojas, the movie is magical but everything else around that relationship is pretty lighthearted and lacks creative depth.

Of course, being a film centered around a cinematic event, Rifkin’s Party offers some insights into how films transcend the viewer. It pays homage to images like Citizen Kane and, in one sequence, the old black and white version of Breathless is shown. This new film also incorporates Mort’s imagination in black and white scenes that detail his past and his fantasies for the present and future. While the use of color and black and white is only marginally successful, it’s an interesting device that Allen uses to tell his story here.

As stated earlier, it’s when the film focuses on Mort and Dr. Rojas that it does best even if their relationship isn’t entirely plausible. These two actors play extremely well here as Mort tries to help Rojas get over the feeling that she’s in a troubled marriage with a man she’s not too fond of, Paco (Sergi Lopez). Wallace Shawn, as always, projects a strong sense of character and depth in his role and Elena Anaya is perfectly cast in her role as the woman who attracts Mort and makes him question what he is looking for in his life. Gina Gershon very skillfully plays Mort’s wife and makes it clear why Mort strays into his characterization.

As Death himself, Christoph Waltz also makes an appearance. Waltz is suitably humorous in his role even though he mostly plays it straight. Mort asks Death what makes life worth keeping and also wonders when he himself is going to die. It’s a good solid scene between Shawn and Waltz even though it looks very familiar as most of the Rifkin’s Party Is.

Despite its pluses, Woody Allen’s new film is not a real success for the reasons mentioned above. I was the one who found his previous movie, A rainy day in New York, be fun and worth watching, even for non-Allen fans. However, Rifkin’s Party is clearly designed specifically for Allen fans and will struggle to appeal to those unfamiliar with his previous work.

Rating: 6/ten

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