Movie Review: ‘Rifkin’s Festival’

Review by James Lindorf

Public opinion says that, on the one hand, Woody Allen is one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation. On the other, he is a scandalous good-for-nothing abuser and should be thrown under a prison. Unfortunately, without evidence or a trial, we are left in a “he said, they said” situation with often very good movies stuck in the middle. Whether you can separate the artist from the art or not, Allen will continue to produce pictures, often with very talented and beloved actors. I will keep my opinion on the director as a person as neutral as possible because that is what the rest of the cast and crew deserve.

Allen’s newest movie, “Rifkin’s Festival,” stars Wallace Shawn as Mort Rifkin, a film critic and academic suffering from, you guessed it, a late-life crisis. “Rifkin’s Festival” was completed back in 2020 and is now getting its U.S. release at a limited number of theaters around the country and on streaming as of January 28th. Mort, a retired film professor, accompanies his publicist wife Sue (Gina Gershon) to the illustrious San Sebastian Film Festival. She is there to promote the latest film of a pretentious young director, Philippe (Louis Garrel). The late-life crisis causing Mort grief may not be his own as Sue and Philippe have an all too familiar relationship for his taste. Beset by frustration, insecurity, and chest pains, Mort ends up in the care of the capable and alluring doctor Jo Rojas (Elena Anaya). Jo proves to be a kindred spirit whose own marriage to tempestuous painter Paco (Sergi López) is causing her pain.

“Rifkin’s Festival” was shot by the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. His 60-year career includes classics like “Apocalypse Now,” “The Last Emperor,” “Last Tango in Paris” and three previous Woody Allen films. Making the gorgeous Spanish town look good probably wasn’t the most challenging task in his career, but that shouldn’t diminish his contributions. Beyond the cinematography, the real selling point is the performance of Wallace Shawn, who is making his 5th appearance in an Allen film. Shawn has been known for playing egotistical, verbose, and neurotic characters since his most famous role in “The Princess Bride.” Shawn and Allen are a natural pairing when Allen doesn’t feel like playing the main character himself. They bring many of the same capabilities to the film, with Shawn offering a more well-rounded comedic sensibility. Gershon and Garrel bounce in and out of the movie without leaving much of an impact. The only one who balances Shawn is Anaya, who makes the audience fall for Jo as quickly as Mort does. She perfectly captures the passionate, intelligent, and multifaceted character.

Whichever phrase you prefer about repetitive nature, “Once more with feeling,” “here we go again,” “Back on my Bullshit,” and dozens more can be used to describe “Rifkin’s Festival.” Like Zooey Deschanel, Ryan Reynolds, or Dwayne Johnson, Woody Allen can and should be accused of not stretching his talents. After 70 years in the industry, Allen has fallen into the trap of speaking from the same soapbox repeatedly, especially late in his career. He is still capable of putting together a compelling story with great performances. Still, even when that happens, it loses impact like a repeated lecture from your parents. Unfortunately, “Rifkin’s Festival” is not successful on both fronts. The story lacks the impact to support its standard 90-minute runtime. When a simple conversation can solve all of the problems in your plot, a lot more weight is put on the actors. Thanks to the performances and characterizations, “Rifikin’s Festival” earns a 3 out of 5; if Allen had given them something more interesting to do, who knows how high the score could have gone.

Rating: PG-13
Genre: Comedy
Original Language: English
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Release Date: January 28th, 2022
Runtime: 1h 32m
Distributor: MPI Media Group

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