Robin CliffordOne rainy evening in a trendy New York City bistro, dinner conversation turns toward the pull of comedy and tragedy in human existence. A man relates a true story of a dinner party interrupted by a troubled young woman and the two writers (Larry Pine and Wallace Shawn) he and his wife are dining with spin two different outcomes for "Melinda and Melinda."
Since its premiere at the 2004 San Sebastian Film Festival, "Melinda and Melinda" has been touted as a return to form for the seventy year old Allen, but it turns out to be instead a return to previous material. What makes "Melinda and Melinda" particularly disappointing is that the trademark Allen dialogue is being spouted by a cast who mostly seem uncomfortable with it. They're all of too different a generation from its creator, too modern for his old time jazz. Only Brooke Smith is distinctive as supporting player Cassie. Amanda Peet is a natural for Woody's style, but is saddled with one of Allen's most cliched characters - the cold, professional New York woman.
From the warm glow of that opening dinner table, we're transported to the shabby chic home of Lee (Jonny Lee Miller, "Trainspotting") and Laurel (Chloë Sevigny, "The Brown Bunny," "Shattered Glass"), an out of work actor and his Park Avenue wife. They're holding a dinner party so that Lee can toady to the director of a play. Just as they sit down to dinner, a bedraggled woman with luggage in tow, Melinda (Radha Mitchell, "Finding Neverland"), arrives, lights a cigarette and asks for white wine, champagne or single malt Scotch. She's a friend of Laurel and dinner guest Cassie's, hauling a horrible history and arriving months later than expected to begin her life anew in the city. Practical Cassie will try to fix her up with a sweet dentist (Geoffrey Nauffts, "Unfaithful"), but Melinda, who views herself as a tragic heroine, will go for the romance of Cassie's hired piano player Ellis Moonglow (Chiwetel Ejiofor, "Dirty Pretty Things"). Laurel's dissatisfaction with her own married life and Melinda's poor choice in men will prove disastrous.
The comedic counterpart finds out of work actor Hobie (Will Ferrell, "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy") cooking dinner for guests that include a billionaire real estate developer who is a potential funder of Hobie's wife Susan's (Peet) indie film, 'The Castration Sonata' (one of Allen's better jokes). They're interrupted by new neighbor Melinda, who enters, announces she's taken 28 sleeping pills and asks for vodka before vomiting in the living room. Susan tries to fix Melinda up with rich dentist Greg (Josh Brolin, "Hollow Man"), but Melinda falls instead for the romance of a man, Billy (Daniel Sunjata, "Brother to Brother"), who stops to play piano with her in the street. The intersection of Hobie's failing marriage and Melinda's poor choice in men will prove for them both.
Allen uses both parallels and opposites to connect his stories. Both Hobie and Lee are out of work actors stigmatized for not being a 'name' who earn their money making toiletry commercials. Both are in failing marriages with cheating wives. A genie-style lamp is an awkward and obvious device used in both tales. Melinda smokes and drinks too much whether tragic or happy, but the doomed edition has children where the upbeat one does not. Woody casts each story differently, perhaps an easy way to keep them distinct for the audience. Still there are occasional moments of disorientation flipping from one to the next (he rarely returns to the writers), ironically when Mitchell, the connective actress, is not in the scene.
Mitchell is a fine actress, but the dual Melindas do not represent her best work. She's uneven, her tragic Melinda more fleshed out than her comedic one. Ferrell, who like Lee Miller is inhabiting the 'Woody Allen' character, is too childlike, albeit likable, to slam dunk the role, and is particularly unsuited to bring off a joke about the Nuremburg Trials. Chloë Sevigny is too understated in her role and Lee Miller gives Lee not one redeeming quality. Chiwetel Ejiofor is disappointingly shallow, turning Ellis into an opportunistic womanizer rather than the inconvenient lover he apparently was meant to be. Vinessa Shaw ("Eyes Wide Shut") veers wildly as Hobie's brief distraction Stacey, Allen's most ill-conceived character, seductive one moment, suicidal the next.
"Melinda and Melinda" is a series of reminders of previous, better Allen films. Ellis Moonglow observes Melinda crying and asks 'So are those tears of sorrow or tears of joy?' She replies 'Aren't those the same tears?' Some may feel the same way about Allen's latest - happy that he's on familiar turf but sad that he's let it go to seed.
At a small dinner party in a trendy Manhattan restaurant two playwrights discuss their particular taste in stories, with one preferring comedy and the other tragedy. When one of the other guests puts forth a story, the writers each give their spin, funny versus dramatic, on it. We see, as their tales unfold, that the lines between comic and tragic can become blurred in Woody Allen’s latest opus, “Melinda and Melinda.”
The premise for Allen’s “M and M” is an interesting one and if Allen were a lot younger and played his patented character rather than using surrogates - Kenneth Branagh in “Celebrity” (yuck!), Jason Biggs in Anything Else” (more yuck!) and Will Ferrell and Jonny Lee Miller, as the comic and tragic Woody, here – would have been much better than what we get. It’s interesting to see and compare Allen’s work when he is the central character and when he is just behind the camera and using stand-ins for his neurosis-laden personas. It makes me wish we could have cryogenically froze Allen at his peak and thaw him out once in a while to get a good movie.
Where Woody Allen’s Manhattan intellectual chic and pithy lines always evinced a smile and a laugh when delivered by the auteur, in the hands of his replacements they are just not funny. Seeing hulking white bread Ferrell falling flat when mouthing Allen’s words is a painful experience – and he does the best of all the Woody Allen replacements. This is just one criticism of “Melinda and Melinda.”
The film starts, as I said, with dinner in a restaurant. (Is it just me or does the intellectual drivel being spouted (one of the spouters is Wallace Shawn) smack of “My Dinner with Andre”?) As the revelers tell their own version of Melinda’s story the action alternates between the two similar tales of Melinda’s arrival. As each story progresses, we see that what is tragic to some may be comic to others. By the end of the long-100-minute flick I felt both preached at and treated as a dimwit who needs to be slapped in the face to be made to see Allen’s irony.
Melinda and Melinda” has a talented cast who are wasted in this bit of self-indulgent drivel. Radha Mitchell, playing both Melindas, gives a flighty, self-aware and nervous performance that keeps me from empathizing with the character’s plight. Anxious, finger-fluttering chain smoking and a stylishly rumpled look do not make a three-dimensional character. Of the rest of the cast, I have to give Will Ferrell the best marks for screen presence. He’s a bit of a sad sack and, as such, distances himself from the rest of the neurotic-acting cast. Jonny Lee Miller as Lee, the Woody alter ego in the tragic Melinda story, merely mouths the patented Allen dialog but lacks any real character. The rest of the cast, which includes, besides those already mentioned, Chloe Sevigny, Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Dirty, Pretty Things”), Josh Brolin, Brooke Smith (the only properly anchored perf in the film) and Amanda Peet, are stranded by the indulgent screenplay.
Techs are at a level one would expect in a Woody Allen film. Veteran lenser Vilmos Zsigmund, making his first film with Allen, maintains the director’s usual static camera shot and keeps the photographic look of the film consistent with the auteur’s other works. Longtime collaborator, Santo Loquasto, does a superb job with the Manhattan locales and the almost fantasy-like abodes of all the players – rich or poor, everyone in an Allen film lives in trendy loft apartments and other fancy digs. I wonder what it would be like if Woody based a film in a squalid, working class neighborhood?
Ever since I saw his first real feature, “Take the Money and Run” (yeah, I know he did other films before but this was his first star turn), I have anticipated Woody Allen’s film with great relish. But, as the years have passed, this expectation has been met less and less. Sure, there have been nice, even good, films from him over the last 10 years, like “Mighty Aphrodite” and “Sweet and Lowdown,” but his body of work over the past, recent years is a mere shadow of his great filmmaking years.
I used to think of Woody Allen as one of America’s best filmmakers but, as the years have drawn by, his work has become more and more self-indulgent and less and less amusing and interesting. As I checked my watch, frequently, during the course of “Melinda and Melinda” it made me long for “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall.” What’s past is past, I guess. I give it a C-.
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