American film critics are routinely hard on American movies, particularly those financed by the big Hollywood studios, which so determinedly pursue the lowest common denominator that they rely on formula and too often produce drivel. They try to please everybody and most often entertain nobody. As a result of the negative reviews that greet the majority of American films, casual moviegoers sometimes think that critics are snobs who favor foreign films just because they're foreign. But that attitude fails to take into account that as a rule only the best foreign films are released in America at all and only the very, very best commonly make it to theaters outside New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle. In short, the rest of the world makes plenty of forgettable films, too. A perfect case in point is the low-wattage Italian comedy Ginger and Cinnamon, which proves that cinematic shallowness is not monopolized by Americans.
Written by Stefania Montoris, Ivan Coltroneo and director Daniele Luchetti, Ginger and Cinnamon is the story of an aunt and a niece who experience unexpected romantic entanglements when they vacation together on the Greek isle of Ios. Thirty-year-old Steffi (Montoris, who looks like a younger Lena Olin) is a perfectionist head case. She's a neat freak and a closet chocoholic who looks like a supermodel but is convinced she's getting fat because the boyfriend with whom she just broke up puts too much oil on her salad. She's the kind of woman who obsessively needs to fold all her clothes before she can have sex. The boyfriend, Andre (Giampaolog Morelli, whose looks ever so slightly recall a young Giancarlo Giannini), is a slacker dreamer. He's so vague we might think he's stoned all the time. He writes down random ideas in a notebook but they never come to anything. As best we can tell, his most tangible skill is that he can bake a tasty cake that combines the flavors of ginger and cinnamon. Steffi and Andre seem to have nothing in common.
The movie gets its narrative drive when Steffi's tubby 14-year-old niece Meggy (Martina Merlino, who has eyes like Scarlett Johansson and an expression that evokes the effervescence of Sarah Michelle Gellar) ducks out of a girl scout camping trip in Spain and convinces her aunt to take her to the beach in Greece instead. On the ferry over, Meggy informs Steffi that her summer objective is to lose her virginity and have a triple orgasm in the process. Though Meggy is a sexual neophyte, she's an expert on positions, condoms and the Kama Sutra. Steffi is faintly shocked by Meggy's announced quest but skeptical that much will actually happen.
And then things get really stupid. For lo and behold, Andre is also vacationing on Ios. Or he's something on Ios. He's trying to teach himself to draw. And he seems to have a job at a bakery where he makes that spicy cake of his. Meggy and Andre meet on a rock. Meggy is smitten, and Andre manages to stay awake often enough to convince Meggy that he might serve as her official deflowerer. Steffi knows none of this because she's off clubbing with Pippo (Alberto Cucca), a teenager trying to score with an older woman.
Well, Meggy comes home at night to tell Steffi all about Andre, whose name she improbably thinks is Aeneas. Andre confesses to Meggy that he's still hung up on his old girlfriend -- Steffi -- and then Steffi counsels Meggy on how to undermine the old girlfriend -- herself. Yes, to paraphrase Laugh-In's Arte Johnson, this is complicated, but not very interesting.
A striking feature of this film is the penetration of American culture into the fabric of contemporary Italian life. Meggy and her fellow teens listen to American pop music, just as Steffi and Andre thrill to the 1980s American hits of their own youth. Characters drop references to American TV shows like Happy Days and The Simpsons. Meggy even speaks a patois punctuated with the words "like," "all," and "dude" that we used to call Valley Speak but is now a default lingo, evidently, for teens everywhere.
The Ginger and Cinnamon filmmakers house their thematic intent in their title. Different, even contrasting things, can serve a single end. A slob and neat freak can still make a relationship that works. An aunt and a niece with very different personalities have things they can teach each other. Duality is also explored in the film's notions about maturity and immaturity. The instant Meggy meets anyone, she declares how mature she is. But, of course, even her preoccupation with sex is immature. Because they are adults, Steffi and Andre presume themselves to be mature. But they both act like spoiled children. This is all well and good enough, I suppose, were these themes revealed in the stories of characters we cared much about.
Steffi (Stefania Montoris) and Andre (Giampaolo Morelli) wonder if opposites attract in Daniele Luchetti's Ginger and Cinnamon, at Zeitgeist.
The Film Movement Series