Woody Allen’s 49th feature, Rifkin’s Festival, finds the filmmaker return to Spain, where he previously shot Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008). He also returns to overly familiar elements from his past work in a story about a married couple who has a dead shark on their hands.
The movie opens with Mort (Wallace Shawn) reflecting in a psychiatrist’s office, so the whole movie is a story he tells in flashback. He attends the San Sebastian Film Festival with his wife, Sue (Gina Gershon), a PR agent for a number of films. She is most attentive to French director Phillpe (Louis Garrel), who is being feted for his film War Is Hell. Mort, a former film studies professor who has long been working on a novel, finds Phillpe and his film trite and superficial, especially when compared to Europe’s great directors of the past, such as Bergman, Fellini, and Truffaut. The only reason Mort attends is to keep an eye Sue, who he fears might be cheating on him.
Concerned about heart pains that started when he left New York, Mort goes to see a doctor, Joanna Rojas (Elena Anaya). Although she is married, Mort hears her husband, a painter, is a jerk, and pursues her, finding symptoms to visit her office. They begin a friendship, but it’s clear he wants more, not letting their age difference, which has to be about 30 years, deter him.
Shawn does a good job in the story’s “Woody Allen” role and doesn’t mimic the persona like some have in previous films. The rest of the cast is competent, although some characters have little to them beyond a name. Like Allen, Mort is very much into cinema, which results in his dreams being set in variations of classic films, leading cinematographer Vittorio Storaro to compose shots reminiscent of Persona, 8 ½, and Jules & Jim, to name a few.
The homages are fun and there a few lines that generate laughs, most often relayed by Mort, but unfortunately, Rifkin’s Festival suffers as much of Allen’s latter work does by feeling stale. We have yet another upper middle class, pair of New Yorkers, unhappy in their relationship with nothing new brought to the examination of their situation. It’s not real clear why they don’t work on it other than she has someone new interested, but their end comes so abrupt and matter of fact, it’s hard to believe they lasted as long as they did.
At this point, Woody Allen feels similar to a brand like McDonald’s. A customer goes to them with certain, lowered expectations, which are usually met. People still get Big Macs for lunch, but I never hear anyone wowed because it’s the same Big Mac they’ve been getting for decades. If people are looking to be mildly entertained by Woody Allen’s sense of humor for 90 minutes, Rifkin’s Festival will meet that goal. However, I am curious the reaction to Rifkin’s Festival by someone who hasn’t seen a majority of Allen’s work. Would the characters and the story feel fresh, and in turn more enjoyable, to a viewer who hasn’t been following his work for decades?