Film & TV

Film Review: ‘Rifkin’s Festival:’ Has Director Woody Allen Finally Run out of Steam?

BY Michael Clark TIMEJanuary 28, 2022 PRINT

Over the past 55 years, Woody Allen has directed 49 features for 18 different distributors and has amassed a modest but (mostly) loyal following. For a number of reasons, few people outside of Allen’s fan base and movie critics see his films. Some don’t like his style, some don’t care for his sense of humor and assorted perceived neuroses, while others simply don’t care for him as a person.

"Rifkin's Festival"
(L–R) Director Woody Allen with Wallace Shawn and Elena Anaya on location in “Rifkin’s Festival.” (Gravier Productions)

For those who grew up during Allen’s peak years (about 1971 through 1986) and appreciated his talents, forgiving him for his pseudo-intellectual East Coast diatribes and the many dud films that followed used to be relatively easy. For every gem he’d deliver, he’d release two stinkers. That’s not terrible; if you put it in baseball terms, Allen would be batting .334 and considered to be a great hitter. Sadly, Allen’s ratio of winners to losers in this century has dipped to about one in five, or about .200—barely enough to stay active in the minor leagues.

Allen at His Laziest

“Rifkin’s Festival” isn’t Allen’s worst movie ever (that would be “Anything Else”), but it is his laziest and most uninspired. There’s not a single original thought or idea to be found (unless you consider imitation to be of interest) and the triumvirate of Allen’s thread-worn principal motifs (nostalgia, turbulent May/December romance, obsession with death) are traipsed about with effortless, random abandon.

"Rifkin's Festival"
Gina Gershon and Wallace Shawn in “Rifkin’s Festival.” (Gravier Productions)

Another mildly interesting thread running through many of Allen’s movies is his adoration and unwavering infatuation with old school filmmakers, particularly the European variety of the ’50s and ’60s. In past efforts, Allen merely needle-dropped their names, but here he ups the ante by recreating entire iconic scenes from other movies. Among these include Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” Francois Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,” Federico Fellini’s “8 ½,” Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” and two from Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane.”

Appearing in his sixth Allen feature, Wallace Shawn (“My Dinner With Andre”) stars as Mort Rifkin, a retired New York film professor and stalled novelist accompanying his PR agent wife Sue (Gina Gershon, “Killer Joe”) to the annual San Sebastian Film Festival (SSIFF) in the Spanish city of Donostia-San Sebastian.

Art Imitates Life Imitating Art

In one of those only-in-the-movies “meta” instances, “Rifkin’s Festival” premiered at the SSIFF a full 17 months ago and was later distributed in 12 Asian, European, and South American countries where it took in a paltry combined $1.7 million. That’s far below Allen’s per film average of $14 million and his worst performing title since “September” in 1987.

Sue’s sole client at the festival is Philippe (Louis Garrel, “The Dreamers”), a young director whose debut art-house war film is receiving major industry buzz. It’s clear from the get-go that Sue is in lust with Philippe and does little to hide this fact from Mort. With Sue and Philippe taking part in a seemingly endless string of press interviews, Mort begins having chest pains and is referred to a local physician by an old drinking buddy also at the SSIFF.

"Rifkin's Festival"
Gina Gershon and Louis Garrel in “Rifkin’s Festival.” (Gravier Productions)

By far the most interesting character in the movie, Dr. Jo Rojas (Elena Anaya, “The Skin I Live In”), sees Mort on short notice, takes his vitals and a blood sample and tells him she will call him back if there’s anything wrong. As many of Allen’s past surrogate characters do, Mort misinterprets Jo’s polite return of small talk as possible romantic interest on her part and he starts developing imaginary ailments in a strained attempt to keep the fringe connection alive.

Mort’s perseverance somewhat pays off when Jo agrees to have a drink with him where she reveals the depths of her own marital woes. Like Sue, Jo is married to a much older, self-involved, overbearing tortured artist type and each finds it difficult to rid themselves of the obvious toxicity in their lives.

These two women are merely “more of the same”: former Allen female characters who are unable (or unwilling) to consider they’d be much better off alone than maintaining dead-end relationships. The most successful (if that’s the right word) past examples of this are the multiple doomed couplings of the Cate Blanchett (who won an Oscar for her performance) and Sally Hawkins characters in “Blue Jasmine,” the last great Allen effort from 2013.

Death As Dietary Consultant

Not showing up until the final five minutes is Christoph Waltz as Death in “The Seventh Seal” reworking. Telling Mort their next meeting will be their last, Death doesn’t offer anything resembling metaphysical opinions or Deep Truths but rather dietary and exercise advice. It’s flippant, glib, patently unfunny and reeks of artistic desperation from the mind of a man who appears to have run out of ideas and creative steam. The entire narrative is running on the fumes of reworked past glories.

"Rifkin's Festival"
Wallace Shawn (L) and Christoph Waltz in “Rifkin’s Festival.” (Gravier Productions)

What would serve Allen well and perhaps rescue his once-great legacy would be to take a year or two off, recharge and deliver one last film full of something new, deserving of our attention and emotional investment. For his own professional sake, Allen needs to stop confusing quantity with quality.

“Rifkin’s Festival”
Director: Woody Allen
Stars: Wallace Shawn, Gina Gershon, Louis Garrel, Elena Anaya, Christoph Waltz
Running Time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: Jan. 28, 2022
Rating: 2 out of 5

Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.
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