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Melinda and Melinda
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by Peter Sobczynski

"It's no 'Purple Rose of Cairo,' but it isn't 'Jade Scorpion' either"
4 stars

The advance word on Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda” is that it is his strongest work in years and a welcome return to form for a man once considered one of America’s great filmmakers. This may be an accurate assessment–it is his most consistent work since 1997's seriously underrated “Deconstructing Harry”–but it says less about its own intrinsic qualities than it does about the disappointing nature of most of his recent efforts. It is certainly better than the woeful likes of “Anything Else”, “Celebrity” or the abysmal “Curse of the Jade Scorpion”, but to suggest that it deserves comparison to the likes of “Annie Hall”, “Manhattan” or “The Purple Rose of Cairo”, or even latter-day gems like “Husbands and Wives” or “Everyone Says I Love You”, is wishful thinking at best and delusional at worst.

The film opens as two playwrights, one a serious artiste (Larry Pine) and one a creator of frothy comedies (Wallace Shawn), sharing a dinner and arguing over whether the essence of life is based in comedy or tragedy. Another guest offers an anecdote about something that happened to some friends of his, which we do not hear except for the initial idea of a woman turning up unannounced at a dinner party, and asks them what they make of it. Each one takes it and spins a story slanted to their own particular viewpoint and the film alternates between the two approaches sharing only a few bits of dialogue and that mysterious woman, known in both stories as Melinda and played in both (the only overlapping performance) by Radha Mitchell.

The serious one places her in a Tennessee Williams-style tear-jerker in which she plays an emotionally damaged woman with a tragic past who is taken in by an old friend (Chloe Sevigny) and her wayward husband (Jonny Lee Miller) and briefly finds loves with a hunky modern-opera composer (Chiwetel Ejiofor) before everything collapses in a sea of betrayal, jealousy and angst a-plenty. In the comedic one, a Neil Simonesque romantic trifle, she is the new girl in the apartment building who catches the eye of a neurotic actor (Will Ferrell) who is married to a wayward director (Amanda Peet) hard at work securing financing for her next project from various hunky millionaires. Some of the specific elements–an extramarital affair or a suicide attempt–are the same but come off quite differently depending on who is telling the story.

Of the two versions, I must admit that I prefer the more comedic approach. Although the idea itself too thin to possibly sustain itself as a full-length play, there is just enough to sustain a reasonably sprightly 50 minutes of running time. While Allen supplies several trademark quips (of which “Of course we communicate–can we not talk about it?” is the one most destined to be quoted), but a lot of the humor comes from the inspired performance by Will Ferrell in a role seemingly tailor-made for the filmmaker himself. In the last few years, when he has chosen to hire other actors to perform similar parts (such as John Cusack in “Bullets Over Broadway” or Kenneth Branagh in “Celebrity”), he has inexplicably ordered them to perform the lines in the exact same way that he might have done himself. Those previous results have been grim–there are few things grislier in a film than the sight of first-rate actors (especially Branagh) being forced to deliver third-rate impersonations instead of actual performances–but Ferrell makes it work here by finding a happy middle ground between a Woody-esque portrayal and the broader schtick that he comes up with in films like “Anchorman” without ever becoming completely ridiculous.

The dramatic half, alas, is nowhere near as successful because it is so oppressively melancholy–it is stuffed with adultery, alcoholism, suicidal behavior, mental cruelty, sordid pasts and dialogue along the lines of “My sad tale should come from my lips” and “Do you want to be another Verdi or Puccini?”–that it feels at times as if Allen is actually delivering a straight-faced spoof of such overheated dramas. If he isn’t, then it suggests that Allen hasn’t really been paying attention to drama in the last couple of decades and is still stuck in the mire of Williams and Chekhov. The actors themselves, for the most part, seem to be suffocated by the material and respond with glum, melancholy performances that are utterly bereft of any inner life. (Allen still doesn’t realize that even the grimmest of material can still contain a spark of life or energy without destroying the mood.) The segment, however, does contain the biggest laugh in the film when we get to see the apartment of the character played by Ejiofor (a rare instance of Allen casting a black male not named Bobby Short in a film); despite being a modern-opera composer, he is somehow able to afford the kind of luxurious space that even Donald Trump would look at with envy.

The saving grace of the film, in the end, is the astounding performance in the title role(s) by Radha Mitchell, an actress whom you may or may not have seen before in such films as “Pitch Black”, “High Art” and “Man on Fire”. In those films, and others, she was quite good but this is her best work to date in a role that most actresses would kill for but few would have the chops to pull off. In the comedic half, she is sweet and charming and pulls off the not inconsiderable task of appearing as a convincing romantic foil to the likes of Will Ferrell. Her work in the dramatic half is even better because she manages to take ridiculously melodramatic material and finds a way to convey it in smaller and more human terms. While the conceit of the movie is to demonstrate the kind of power that a storyteller wields, Mitchell quietly and effectively demonstrates that sometimes the right actors can be even more powerful in the ways that they can take substandard material and make it seem better than it actually is.

“Melinda and Melinda” is not perfect and its central point, that any story can be either hilarious or heartbreaking depending on who is telling it, is the very definition of underwhelming. (I think Mel Brooks put it best when he said “Tragedy is when I get a paper cut on my finger–comedy is when someone else falls down a manhole and dies!”) However, the comedic section is quite funny, the performances by Mitchell and Ferrell are memorable and, happiest of all, it is the first indication in a while that Woody Allen has made a movie because of artistic inspiration and not simply as a reflex. Hopefully, this will mark the beginning of a new level of commitment that will allow him to regain his stature as one of the great American filmmakers. My only suggestion for his next project is that he perhaps include fewer paper cuts and more manholes.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=11799&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/23/05 11:56:18
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User Comments

7/26/06 Agent Sands Every four or five movies, Allen does a truly creative twist on his repetitive formula. 4 stars
7/05/06 Graham Mason Absolutely boring -- I gave up after 35 minutes!! 1 stars
12/27/05 ELI it wasn't good, but it wasn't bad.... It was bleh! :l 3 stars
11/14/05 Jade B I thouht it was boring: it barely raised a laugh in the "comedy" 2 stars
9/25/05 a. kurlovs interesting characters, good acting. cheesy at times, but the cheese tastes good 4 stars
3/29/05 Bruce The last funny movie Allen made was "Play it Again, Sam" 1 stars
3/21/05 mott the drupal woody = best 5 stars
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  18-Mar-2005 (PG-13)
  DVD: 25-Oct-2005



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