Woody Allen hit upon a plucky, imaginative concept for "Melinda andMelinda": The same story, of a woman at loose ends, imagined as bothcomedy and tragedy by two playwrights (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine) arguingin a Manhattan cafe whether life is inherently funny or inherently sad.
While these bookend scenes are uncharacteristically clunkyand deliberate, full of exposition designed to set the fictional stage,the two parallel stories are pure Woody Allen at his ironic, neurotic,romantic, poignant and peculiar best -- and they're deftly woven togetherto compliment and play off each other.
The underappreciated Radha Mitchell (she played wives in"FindingNeverland," "PhoneBooth" and "Manon Fire") may now get the recognition shedeserves with her remarkable performances in the dual title role as a flighty,suicidal beauty who arrives in each story by crashing a dinner party.
One Melinda is a new downstairs neighbor who knocks onthe Upper East Side door of wannabe filmmaker Amanda Peet (who flirts withrich men hoping they'll fund her independent movie "The CastrationSonata") and her husband, neurotic out-of-work actor Will Ferrell(the picture's requisite Woody surrogate, although with unpredicted nuanceFerrell makes the role his own). Pratfalling into the dining room, Melindaannounces she's just taken two dozen sleeping pills. The comical chaosthat ensues leads to friendships, infidelities and unrequited love, allorbiting around Melinda -- although she's largely unaware of the upheavalshe's wrought.
The other Melinda is a despondent, unstable mother whohas lost her income, her house and custody of her kids. Desperate for aplace to stay, she arrives unannounced and disheveled at the trendy loftof an old boarding school chum, Park Avenue princess Chloe Sevingy ("BoysDon't Cry," "ShatteredGlass"). Sevingy's philandering husbandis a failed actor as well (Jonny Lee Miller, "Trainspotting"),but the these characters have little else in common with Peet and Ferrell,save that Melinda's arrival creates tension in their marriage and introducesa unpredictable element into their social circle.
In both stories Melinda's friends try to help her put herlife back together, with some ups and downs, and varying degrees of devotionand success -- all the makings of great laughs, serious soul-searchingand other cross-pollinating thematic elements. Of course, being a WoodyAllen film, the drama is often funnier than the farce, and vice versa.
Allen creates touchstone moments that bleed between thetwo tales, and edits them together in a way that enhances the film's underlyingpremise that, depending on atmosphere and happenstance, tragedy and comedyare interchangeable. But this is not an exercise in cinematic self-awareness.There's no CharlieKaufman-like intersection of the two realities."Melinda and Melinda" simply returns to the two playwrights forits inferences, at which points the film always stumbles a little. Eventhough these fleeting cut-aways are the gatekeepers of the plot, the mouthfulsof dialogue regurgitated by Shawn and Pine read like an afterthought designedto make sure the audience gets the point.
The impeccable casts in the two narratives do overcomethe mechanical nature of these wrap-arounds, and Woody Allen's gift forbringing out something unique in actors who have often been pigeonholedbefore he hires them is very much in evidence here.
But it's the flawless parallel performances of Radha Mitchellthat give the picture its soul. She maintains a nugget of sorrow in sillyMelinda's improving disposition (she's a fine comedienne) and a modicumof humor in unhinged Melinda's self-destructive volatility (she deliversmore than one moving yet mordant monologue of anguished self-examination).More importantly though, she understands that the character is the sameperson at her core, shaped by the circumstances of life, and brings tobear that deeper self in both.
Coming so early in the year, this performance will likelybe forgotten by the time Oscar season rolls around, but Mitchell is goingon my Best Actress list right now.