Melinda and Melinda Movie Review

Woody Allen's deliberately uneven Melinda and Melinda begins with a restaurant dinner conversation between two writers whose topic is near and dear to the director's heart - what's the essence of life: comedy or tragedy? For a filmmaker whose comedies have always been, to varying degrees, laced with frustration and anguish, and whose dramas are often cast in the Ingmar Bergman school of oppressive austerity, it's no surprise to find Allen ruminating on the indistinct line between the funny and the sad. The filmmaker's latest tackles this symbiotic relationship by bifurcating his narrative - the turbulent tale of Melinda (Radha Mitchell), a woman who comes between an unhappily married couple, is presented in "comedic" and "tragic" versions that share many peripheral details but exhibit a decidedly different tone. What's missing, unfortunately, are both laughs and tears.

Allen recounts both sides of his story concurrently, flip-flopping back and forth between his serious and lighthearted editions in order to highlight how the same basic plot outline can be molded for divergent purposes. In the film's solemn segment, Melinda is a neurotic, chain-smoking warning label against adultery, having lost her husband, custody of her children, and fragile hold on sanity because of a fling with a dashing Italian. Arriving on the Manhattan doorstep of her friends Lee (Jonny Lee Miller) and Laurel (Chloë Sevigny) during a get-together between friends and business associates, Melinda is a high-strung, near-anorexic mess, and her appearance eventually leads not only to a doomed romance with a dashing pianist and aspiring composer (Chiwetel Ejiofor, radiating intellectual charm), but also to the infidelity-incited end of struggling actor Lee and shopaholic Laurel's supposedly perfect marriage.

Juxtaposed against this Husbands and Wives redux is the lighthearted portion of Allen's film, which focuses on the wacky complications caused by Melinda for unhappy spouses Hobie (Will Ferrell), an aspiring actor, and Susan (Amanda Peet), an assistant director looking to fund her feature debut. Here, Melinda is cute, flighty, and ready for love, and her intrusion into Hobie and Susan's dinner party sends the discontented Hobie's heart aflutter. Ferrell imitates Allen's anxious, flustered mannerisms around the sunny, fetching Mitchell, fidgeting with his hands, stammering nervously, and churning out a regular stream of self-deprecating remarks, while Peet easily slips into her trademark role as the cold, unfriendly bitch. Cast in a goofy Manhattan Murder Mystery mold (minus the murder), it's a semi-witty trifle of romantic shenanigans, ultimately culminating in an amicable two-timing solution that suits everyone's lovestruck needs.

Having established his dual scenarios, one half-expects Allen to playfully subvert each section's intentions - say, have the supposedly "tragic" part become hilarious, while lacing the "comedy" with sorrow. Instead, the director plays it straight, which is to say, he doggedly follows through with his gimmicky storytelling device as if it were elucidating more than obvious truths about the small gap between joy and misery. The results are mildly amusing at best, dreary at worst, and the only thing that keeps his film afloat is Mitchell, who, as both incarnations of the titular woman, is something of a minor revelation. Consistently the liveliest presence on screen, Mitchell imbues the morose, suicidal Melinda with an air of frazzled hopelessness that sidesteps pretentious posturing, while her more buoyant Melinda exudes a sweet, girl-next-door appeal that's (especially during her visit to the track with Hobie) enchanting. Though both Melindas, when viewed as one character, form a familiar Allen portrait of desirable femininity - flighty, irritating, and self-destructive on the one hand; amiable, demure and lovelorn on the other - Mitchell's sterling twin performance is nonetheless stamped with her own unique brand of alluring quirkiness.

Once again collaborating with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Allen showers the remainder of his affection on Manhattan itself - not since the late 1980s has the director so wonderfully depicted the frantic, luxurious beauty of the bustling city in springtime. But like the film's contrasting structure, Allen captures NYC's spirit while populating his dramedy with actors who exude out-of-towner status. Jonny Lee Miller, affecting a strained American accent, is wholly unbelievable as a city native, while Peet's Susan recalls one of the director's Los Angelino caricatures. Charged with the thankless job of acting Woody-ish, Ferrell seems uncomfortably shackled by his role as a pseudo-Jewish nebbish, and though he's bestowed with the film's funniest line - while successfully seducing a Republican Playboy model, Hobie thankfully proclaims, "I will never vote against school prayer again" - Allen wholly ignores the comedian's gift for outlandish, unhinged insanity. Then again, it says something about the aging filmmaker's once-great instincts - and about the mediocre Melinda and Melinda's penchant for missing its marks - that The Daily Show funnyman Steve Carell briefly appears as Ferrell's best friend, yet isn't given a single joke to work with.

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Comments

Melinda and Melinda Rating

" Weak "

Rating: PG-13, 2005

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