Woody Allen’s Melinda And Melinda
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/15/05

  Woody Allen was a big star. Radha Mitchell will be a big star. The two- nebbishy New York intellectual and gorgeous blond Australian actress- are the two essential ingredients in Allen’s latest film, Melinda And Melinda, which just opened in Texas last week. While not at the level of the greatest Allen films from his Golden Age of 1977-1992 it is a significant step above his last few meager outings, and hearkens back to some of those earlier classics. Like Broadway Danny Rose it is a film that is told to the audience via raconteurs at a restaurant, like Annie Hall it is a romantic comedy, and like Interiors it is a European type parlor drama.
  The film opens with four people discussing philosophy- more cogently the merits of tragedy versus comedy, after one of them proffers a tale, and asks two older playwrights (the two sides of Allen himself) to opine on whether the tale would work better as a comedy or tragedy. The tragedian Max (Larry Pine), who thinks life funny, expounds the tragic aspects of it while the comic writer Sy (Wallace Shawn), who thinks life is sad, does the comedic aspects, and thus the viewer is taken into the two tales of Melinda, whose ‘real’ tale has been elided at the beginning.
  The comic tale of Melinda Nash (Mitchell- who is a sexy, younger cross between Sharon Stone and Michelle Pfeiffer, and never lets her accent slip through) finds she is a relatively carefree neighbor to a struggling filmmaker, Susan (Amanda Peet), with sexual dysfunction issues along the lines of Annie Hall, and her actor husband Hobie (Will Ferrell). Throughout that tale, which alternates with the tragic tale, Melinda is a childless divorcee who ends up causing the husband to fall in love with her, even after she falls in love with a black man she meets in a chance musical encounter. Ferrell, however, is guilt-stricken over his love for Melinda, until he catches her in bed with a would-be financier for her film. He is happy over this, but has to wait until Melinda and her beau split up, before a happy end can await both.
  In the tragic version Melinda Nash (nee Robicheaux) is a divorcee who has been banned from seeing her two kids after she abandoned them for an affair with a man who dumped her, and whom she later murdered, but got away with it. She crashes a party of an old college friend, Laurel (Chloe Sevigny), and starts living with her and her alcoholic actor husband Lee (Jonny Lee Miller)- a struggling actor. A chance musical encounter with a black man, pianist and composer Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejiofor), leads to romance for Melinda, yet he has fallen in love with Melinda’s friend, (Chloe Sevigny), who reciprocates, after finding out of her husband’s infidelities. This drives tragic Melinda to want to suicide, and that’s where that tale ends.
  Neither tale is fully complete, but neither has to be, as they are merely setups for an argument. Plot points overlap, and some have slight differences- like Melinda wanting to suicide out a window in the tragic version, and a brunet Republican Playboy Playmate in the comic tale. But, just when you think the tales have diverged for good, they start overlapping, again. Yet, there is too much rehash in the film- there were a half dozen moments or declamations from the characters that had me saying, ‘Which of his other films did I hear that in before?’, for every original one- from the tragedy- ‘Melinda had a reputation for being Postmodern in bed.’ Will Ferrell (so good in fluff like Elf) is woefully miscast here, in the Woody comic role, and all he does is a bad impression- Kenneth Branagh was much better, and more believable, as the Woody stand-in in Celebrity. He lacks the pathos and gravitas as a comedian to properly spout Allenistic non-sequiturs with any conviction. Imagine Lurch from The Addams Family trying to do Woody, or Curly Howard trying to do Grouch Marx! Miller is woefully miscast as his counterpart in the tragedy- he is a bland, uncompelling figure. However, Brooke Smith shines as Cassie, Melinda’s and Laurel’s pregnant friend in the tragedy. The rest of the cast, although all capable actors, are too young, as thirtysomethings, to be spouting Woody dialogues- although they are far better suited for it than the twentysomethings of his last film- Anything Else. Other than that, though, the tales are well woven, and the editing done well, although the tale, I feel, could have benefited from more framing and dialectic by the battling playwrights. After an initial opening set of exchanges they only appear once mid-film, until the end, which is one of the best ends to a film in the Allen canon, and recalls Allen’s end with Shawn from 1987’s Radio Days.
  Woody also seems out of touch with today’s younger generation- what thirtysomething today drinks wine and listens to Bartok, played by a hired black pianist? Even pseudo-intellectuals take diet pills and listen to rap. It is especially painful to hear yuppy women in 2005 speak like Women’s Libbers of the 1970s, and talk of writing the Castration Sonata, in the tragic tale.
  In a sense, a film that this is reminiscent of is the late 1990s Gwyneth Paltrow film Sliding Doors, which follows the lives of the same character if and if she did not make a choice to do something. In this film, Melinda is two different conceptions, not the same character in two differently conceived settings, although Radha Mitchell excels as both versions- an augury of her major talent. Neither film, as constituted, would work separately, and I doubt either could, even if rounded out. But, because of its bifurcated nature, and the lack of traditional structuring in each half there is a sense of wanting more left on the viewer’s palate- not a bad thing, but knowing we see more on the plate, yet cannot touch it is frustrating; the definition of a Woody Allen film in his post-Golden Age.

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