Seeing a Woody Allen movie in 2022 is, it seems fair to say, a curious experience. Those who believe you can’t separate the art from the artist will find copious proof in his latest movie, “Rifkin’s Festival.” But, of course, they’re unlikely to watch it. Those who still celebrate the artist might watch it, but they won’t find much in the way of art.
For his 49th feature film, Allen returns to a well that is not so much dry as desiccated. The movie opens with Wallace Shawn as our Allen doppelgänger, Mort Rifkin. Mort, an anxious former professor, is also a dedicated cinephile and self-defined intellectual who spends the next hour-and-a-half complaining vociferously to his analyst.
He’s reminiscing about a troubled trip to Spain’s San Sebastián Film Festival, which he recently took with his publicist wife, Sue (Gina Gershon). “Film festivals are no longer what they were,” Mort grouses to the therapist. “I taught cinema as Art: the great European masters. I only went because I couldn’t shake the suspicion she had a little crush on this bulls— movie director she did publicity for.”
As we flash back to Spain to relive the trip with Mort, we find it increasingly tough to blame Sue for her potentially roving eye. The director, Philippe (Louis Garrel, “Little Women”), is meant to be a pretentious fool. But Mort, who never stops sighing about the flaws he sees around him, is infinitely worse. Individuals are too lowbrow, or middlebrow. Society is superficial and hung up on the trivial. Culture is purely commercial and utterly empty.
So while Sue actively engages with the world outside their fancy hotel room, her husband moans about his health (which is fine), his Great American Novel (which remains unwritten), and his belief that he owes the world a masterpiece (the world seems less convinced).
What shakes him out of his stupor is a checkup with Dr. Jo Rojas (Elena Anaya, “Wonder Woman”) — who turns out, much to Mort’s 21st century shock, to be a woman. And, this being an Allen film, a young and gorgeous one at that. But wait, there’s more: Jo is so charmed by her grumbling septuagenarian patient that she goes out for drinks with him after his physical, confessing how unhappy she is at home. Her husband (Sergi López, “Pan’s Labyrinth”), she says, has affairs. “And I accept that. After all, he’s an artist. And you can’t judge an artist by bourgeois standards.”
Well, you can certainly judge him by artistic ones. And Mort’s persistent insistence on flatly dismissing any culture not created by The Great Men of History Past — Buñuel, Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, Hawks, Ford, Capra, Welles, Stravinsky, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Stendhal, Proust, and Joyce are all name-checked — grows increasingly tiresome.
Allen does try to inject some whimsy into the argument that art ground to a halt generations ago, through black-and-white fantasies reflecting Mort’s passions. It is strange, though, that such an elitist cinephile dreams in only the most obvious choices: “Persona,” “The Seventh Seal,” “Citizen Kane.” (A joke about Mort’s neighbor, Rose Budnik, is kind of funny, if also the pinnacle of the movie’s humor.)
Then again, Allen is proof that tastes congeal: He, too, has been referencing Mort’s heroes for decades now. Though these Film 101 sequences offer no new insights — at this point in his movie career, Death surely wishes he could flip the chess board over for a backgammon game — they are, at least, a distraction. And the cameos, from Christoph Waltz, Steve Guttenberg, Tammy Blanchard and Richard Kind, are both mildly amusing and noticeably superior to most of the other, oddly stilted supporting performances.
Shawn, who has been working with the director since 1979’s “Manhattan,” could probably play an Allen stand-in in his sleep. He gives it his all anyway, but Shawn is so hamstrung by the script that he’s unable to make Mort even remotely appealing.
Gershon is a more sympathetic presence, her confident energy a pushback against the screenplay’s retrograde vision of Sue. “When we first met, she was not only a great beauty, she was so impressive!” Mort says. “Sarah Lawrence, literature major. She was absolutely brilliant. But very neurotic!” Philippe, meanwhile, seduces her by announcing, “I like women who achieve. I find their energy sexy.”
The most enticing character, though, is San Sebastián. As cinematographer Vittorio Storaro follows Mort through its verdant parks, waterfront boardwalk, beautiful architecture and charming markets, the viewer’s mind can’t help wandering alongside Allen’s melancholy hero. Savvy editing from longtime Allen cohort Alisa Lepselter also keeps things moving swiftly forward, giving us the chance to imagine the movie as a charming travelogue. Despite all of Mort’s complaints, San Sebastián actually seems like an awfully nice place to spend long days with no obligations. (The festival rewarded this pretty piece of promotion by debuting the movie back in 2020.)
When the flashback ends, we return to the analyst’s office. Mort’s final line is so ostentatiously direct it feels as though it’s being spoken straight from filmmaker to viewer: “So, do you have anything to say to me after everything I’ve told you?” But it’s not the brazen challenge Allen thinks it is, in a movie that tells us nothing we don’t already know.
“Rifkin’s Festival” opens Friday in U.S. theaters and on-demand.