Rifkin's Festival

**1/2

Reviewed by: Nikola Jovic

Rifkin's Festival
"This new film, like all the others, has some of that old Woody sauce as well that gives it some charm, but it’s a mere shadow of its old self." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Almost two years ago, the coronavirus pandemic brought the entire world to a halt, but just as Wile E Coyote keeps running in the air even after he’s out of a hill to run on, Woody Allen kept making movies even when everybody slowed down. And just like Wile Coyote, he keeps on making them even when he’s out of steam, and has done so for a while now, but it looks like the year 2020 was a year where he’s found himself, like the cunning Coyote, looking around in midair without a hill to stand on, full of dread. But the gravity still hasn't kicked in, and we’re all just waiting for the shoe to drop.

The story of Rifkin's Festival follows Mort Rifkin (Wallace Shawn), who used to be a respected film history professor back in a day, but these days he’s trying to write his masterpiece debut novel he’s been dreaming of for his entire life. He's trying to write himself into a pantheon of literary classics he always admired, not willing to settle for less. He’s obliged to stop his work on the book, in order to accompany his, noticeably younger - middle-aged, wife Sue (Gina Gershon) on her trip to San Sebastian Film Festival, where she’s representing a film by a young hot director Phillippe (Louis Garrel) as a publicist.

Rifkin is going partially out of a love of film and a sense of obligation, but mostly because he has a feeling that his wife is cheating on him. Cocktail parties with the talk of box office, press junkets, and movies with trivial subject matter that can’t even hold a candle to the old greats, are not entertaining him for even a second. But when, after a convenient sequence of events, Dr Jo Rojas, who was supposed to give him a check-up, turns out to be a woman (Elena Anaya), Rifkin will get a new sense of excitement as he’s going around San Sebastian and complaining to himself by day, and having film-referencing nightmares through which he frames his life, by night.

Endings are always sad. And I know how bad this sounds, when Clint Eastwood is (more or less) successfully cranking out half a decent movie every year in his 90s, Paul Verhoeven is managing to have everyone excited about his next project in his late 80s, and when even Walter Hill has a new comeback movie, it begs the question: who are you to decide when it’s time to quit, but this very much feels like, if not the end, then the beginning of the end for Woody Allen. Framed in those terms, it comes across as malicious, declaring that someone’s days are over. Yes, people have been saying that he’s old since the early 2000s, but he switched it up and refreshed his oeuvre by casting other actors in roles that he would usually play. After that people would call him repetitive and question whether he has another truly important film in him. So he came out with Match Point (2006). When the 2010s rolled along and the people were saying: “Now he’s really repeating himself", he showed up with Midnight in Paris (2011) and Blue Jasmine (2013), both movies which won him and his collaborators a lot of accolades. And although every subsequent film has been worse than the one preceding it, you would always rationalise it as, “Well Midnight and Jasmine weren’t too long ago, he still has it in him.” But it’s 2022 now. Let’s just frame it this way, there is an entire generation of moviegoers who recognise Woody Allen exclusively as a director of Midnight in Paris.

What Allen accomplishes here is an effect similar to what he did in Hollywood Ending (2002), where the main protagonist is in a predicament best described as “Am I making a European arty film, or is arty film making me?” In a similar way, when you watch Rifkin's Festival, one is wondering, is Allen just accurately portraying tiredness and tediousness of an old person, or is this film just being made by a very tired and tedious old person? You would watch scenes with Shawn and Anaya, where the old, pretentious and neurotic film professor is coming onto the young(er) Jo, and it’s a scene that feels all too familiar. By now, we’ve all seen this play out in well over a dozen scenarios, and we know what feelings this is trying to evoke, but all I’m seeing is this younger person, with a sour look on their face, trying to dodge some old bore. It’s a strange feeling because at that point you’re no longer laughing with the movie, you’re almost compelled to laugh at it, but can’t because there is nothing funny about getting old and out of touch.

It’s all bad. This new film, like all the others, has some of that old Woody sauce as well that gives it some charm, but it’s a mere shadow of its old self. Although for the majority of its running time, the film looks cheap, Vittorio Storaro can still light a scene here and there. Despite it barely going through the motions, a few jokes when they’re good can still elicit a chuckle or two out of you, and although Shawn, Gershon and Garrel are very capable actors, Shawn simply isn’t able to carry the film, and the other two are either serviceable or decent. Star cameos are fun, and film references in Rifkins nightmares are more or less interesting, with some recreations done more convincingly than the others, but that’s about as much praise as you can give to this film.

Even Irrational Man (2015) and Wonder Wheel (2017), some of his worst from the previous decade, still look and feel fresher and livelier in comparison to this latest entry, which just goes to show that if you have a studio backing you, and young talent on your team, you could still maintain some semblance of a decent appearance. But it’s just that, an appearance veiling a mere shadow of his old self. Even in the aforementioned entries, although you would see the same old dynamics, you would at least get a proper story and a proper resolution. This, however, gives off an impression of a coat stand, on which you can hang some of those old vibes, themes, motifs, bunch or red herrings, and film references about which you can mull over until the credits start rolling.

Everyone in this film acts as if Woody wrote their roles for people that are 20 years younger, but could only cast this specific group of people, so now you have a young and successful director chasing after a good looking, but nonetheless older, publicist who’s a wife of an old relic of a film professor, a middle-aged doctor acting as if she’s in her 30s and plethora of other illogical occurrences. The concept of a ‘film festival’ actually being an old man's delusional framing device for his entire life, through his favourite films, sounds like an interesting, yet funny, meta way of doing it, but it’s a concept that doesn’t pay off because Rifkin doesn’t get to learn anything from it or his experiences. It ends up being a sideshow to an uneventful story.

With some of Woody’s worst films, I could always see myself giving them another look, if I was to flick through TV channels and one of them just happens to be playing (how is that for an old timey expression?). Nothing special, but totally fine for a slow Sunday afternoon, after lunch. This one isn’t even in that category. With all the others, you could always find over a dozen things faulty about them, but like the old saying goes: a good movie has over a thousand problems with it, while a bad movie has only one problem - it’s just bad. This one falls in the latter category, but when someone is trying to go through the motions and can’t, it stops being only bad and is just sad.

Reviewed on: 22 Jan 2022
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Rifkin's Festival packshot
The story of a couple who attend San Sebastian Film Festival only to find their romance tested.

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