Maria Maggenti's 1995 teen romance The Incredibly True Adventure Of 2 Girls In Love won praise for being slicker and more energetic than the average GLBT film-festival fare, though its jokes and premise were essentially reheated Hollywood schlock with a gender switch. Maggenti's follow-up, Puccini For Beginners, is an improvement, following a broader array of characters—gay, straight, male, and female—without reducing any of them to types. But Maggenti is still trapped behind surfaces, enamored of the idea of making a buoyant, urbane romantic comedy, while falling short of anything really resonant or personal.
Puccini For Beginners stars Elizabeth Reaser as an unsentimental writer who loses her girlfriend and winds up in the arms of Justin Kirk, the first man she's dated since college. Then dissatisfaction with Kirk's subtle paternalism pushes Reaser toward Gretchen Mol, a giggly young woman who's never been with a woman before—and who, unbeknownst to Reaser, is Kirk's ex-girlfriend. For most of its first hour, Puccini For Beginners is a warmly lit New York movie, full of witty people making jokes about Kant and Philip Roth in bookstores and loft apartments. Then everyone shows up at the same party, secrets get revealed, and the movie slips a gear, down into grinding farce.
Frankly, Puccini For Beginners isn't all that sparkling in its first hour, either. Maggenti's exploration of her heroines' fluid sexuality is refreshing and smart, and while Reaser's friends bicker with her about feminism and opera, no one's overly hectoring or mean-spirited. They'd all be fine people to spend time with, if they didn't have a habit of explaining their romantic desirability by gushing, "I have a rent-stabilized apartment!" Maggenti is getting better at building characters with distinctive quirks and nuance, but when they open their mouths, they still talk like they're in a movie.