Wednesday, April 20, 2005

"Melinda and Melinda": A Review

Melinda and Melinda is not exactly a return to form for Woody Allen, but at least it doesn't elicit cringing, which is a good sign -- and a change of pace from his most recent batch of dogs. Moreover its meditations on the nature of life and the creative process mark a return to the sort of stimulating brain teases that Allen offered in such great works of his as The Purple Rose of Cairo, Zelig and Stardust Memories.

The movie opens with two playwrights (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine) at a Manhattan restaurant arguing about whether life is chiefly tragedy or comedy. By way of illustrating their respective viewpoints, the pair offer up conflicting scenarios that spin from a single episode (or an inciting incident, as Robert McKee might call it): a woman named Melinda crashes in on an insufferably affected dinner party.

In the "tragic" story, Melinda is a chain-smoking neurotic who makes poor choices in men and finds herself ensnared in a web of affairs involving her friend Laurel (Chloe Sevigny), and jazz pianist Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The Melinda of the "comic" story finds our female lead as a sunny ingenue who is pursued by a married out-of-work actor, Hobie (Will Ferrell.)

As Allen has done for nearly two decades, he plunders his earlier, and better, works for jokes and situations. Hobie complains to his wife that they hardly ever make love anymore, and his Woodyesque gestures and stammering harkens back to almost identical scenes from Annie Hall and a handful of other Allen films. Hobie's wife, an indie filmmaker (Amanda Peet) , is at work on something she calls The Castrating Sonata, a warmed-over reference to The Castrating Zionist, a fictitious memoir scribed by the protagonist of Manhattan.

And of course, the characters are composites from the Woody Allen gene pool: loquacious, self-absorbed, neurotic, implausibly sophisticated folks who are surprisingly cavalier about marital infidelity (particularly important in the make-believe world of the man who ran off with his stepdaughter).

In that stifling milieu, however, you have to offer kudos to any actor with the gumption to elbow breathing room for himself or herself. Radha Mitchell is very impressive in her dual Melinda performance, particularly in the comic tale. The gold star, however, goes to Ferrell, whose knack for physical comedy helps lift his Hobie beyond the Woodyisms that hobbled other actors (most notably Kenneth Branagh in the abysmal Celebrity).

Melinda and Melinda hints at the ambitious and clever Woody Allen his fans know and wish were still making movies. But ambitious and clever alone don't keep an audience invested -- not with a tragedy that isn't very tragic and a comedy that isn't very funny.


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