by Luke Pyzik
Woody Allen has often been criticized for repeating himself, for making the same movie about the same people dissecting the same issues. People say he’s out of touch, that he doesn’t understand the way real people talk and act, and while his box office receipts support the theory, I’ve always found his world of Upper East Side Manhattanites charming. Even though Allen hasn’t truly been himself since 1999’s “Sweet and Lowdown,” I’ve walked into his movies over the past six years with the hopes that each one will be his triumphant return to form. I can’t help it. Each time I hear that soft jazz music playing next to those white titles over black background, I can’t help but think that maybe another “Hannah and her Sisters,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” or “Purple Rose of Cairo” is on the way. Unfortunately, “Melina and Melinda,” while daring and occasionally interesting, is neither triumphant nor a return to form.The movie is an exercise that undoubtedly takes place in creative writing classrooms all over the world. Two playwrights sit in a restaurant and argue whether a particular story is better told as a comedy or a tragedy. As they spin their yarns, the events take place on screen, with Will Ferrell and Amanda Peet starring in the comedy, and Chloe Sevigny heading up the tragedy. The constant between the two is Radha Mitchell as Melinda, a depressive young woman who, in both versions, sets the story in motion by interrupting a dinner party.
"A Soft Woody"
The plot from there charts familiar Allen territory in both versions – unhappy marriages, infidelity, quick partner exchanges, and an uncomfortable trip to the Hamptons. As these are playwrights dictating the story, the performances are very theatrical, with the drama story containing more than its fair share of longwinded monologues. The comedy pretty much feels like an Allen movie, hitting all the familiar beats, but the drama feels over-cooked, even by Allen’s standards. Even in his most straightforward melodramas (“September,” “Another Woman,” “Interiors”), the stories are grounded by a certain sense of human truth, but here, the drama is painted so broadly that is hard to have a stake in the dramatic Melinda’s plight. She drinks heavily, pops pills, and talks a lot about her troubled past that includes an estranged child, a messy divorce, and a dead lover. None of it feels real. The dramatic Melinda is the closest Allen has ever come to writing a character that could end up on “The Jerry Springer Show.” Maybe that’s why he has the character coming from the Midwest.
But maybe I’m making “Melinda and Melinda” sound like two movies, with the comedy being good, and the drama being bad. This isn’t the case. First, Allen does an admirable job of mixing the two as not to repeat plot points, and the film does feel like one cohesive whole, albeit one that is ultimately an experiment that doesn’t mean a whole lot. Second, the comedy isn’t that good either. Will Ferrell is a bright spot, as he has the “Woody Allen” role that Woody himself has become too old to play. Over the past few years it has been strange to see different actors take their turns playing Woody, though, I must admit, I’m a sucker for the neurotic one-liners delivered with a stutter, and almost always find it funny no matter who’s playing it. Ferrell does better with it than some (Jason Biggs in “Anything Else”), but not as well as others (John Cusack in “Bullets Over Broadway”). Ferrell is a gifted comedian, more subdued here than usual, but his gentle performance proves that like Jim Carry, he will eventually go on to do solid dramatic work.
The theme at the heart of “Melinda and Melinda” is a conversation that Allen has been having for quite a long time. If he isn’t making movies about his relationship with women, he’s making movies about his relationship with his art. The most successful example is “Purple Rose of Cairo,” where Allen asks if choosing movies over real life is enough to sustain a happy life. Here, it seems like Allen is still trying to explain why he started doing drama after starting his career as a comedian. He’s done that before, most notably with “Stardust Memories,” and he has overestimated how much his audience cares about the issue. Back in 1980, his fans may have still been upset by his transition from broad jokester to introspective social commentator, but now, twenty-five years later, there is a new generation of Allen fans who don’t need to be convinced that comedy and tragedy are interchangeable. We already believe it, and we believe it because we grew up on “Hannah and her Sisters” and “Husbands and Wives.”But the fundamental problem with “Melinda and Melinda” is that Allen is more interested in making a point about drama than telling a story about a group of characters. Maybe he’s done that before, but the point was fresher and better made, and contained a story arch that was at least disguised as a narrative. Here, he freely admits the story is an experiment. The movie is not about the two Melindas, but about the two playwrights who only have about five minutes of actual screen time. If we’ve learned anything from Allen, it’s that a work of art is always about its author, no matter who the characters are, but the execution of “Melinda and Melinda” is not up to his standards. I firmly believe Allen has one more masterpiece in him. Maybe next time.
link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=11799&reviewer=381
originally posted: 03/29/05 10:44:25