Melinda and Melinda
Director : Woody Allen
Screenplay : Woody Allen
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Radha Mitchell (Melinda), Will Ferrell (Hobie), Chloe Sevigny (Laurel), Jonny Lee Miller (Lee), Amanda Peet (Susan), Wallace Shawn (Sy), Josh Brolin (Greg), Larry Pine (Max)
In the liner notes on the back of the Criterion Collection laser disc of Annie Hall (1977), which, along with Manhattan (1979) marked the pinnacle of Woody Allen’s unique filmmaking achievement, cowriter Marshall Brickman recalls a conversation he had with Allen. Brickman was concerned that Annie Hall was going to be a failure because it wasn’t commercial enough. He writes, “I recall [Allen] saying, wisely, that the only sure thing in life is that you shouldn’t repeat yourself; that if you’re a real artist you have to take the leap, and if it turns out to be off a cliff, at least you can enjoy the view on the way down.”
Unfortunately, Allen has not been very good at taking his own advice, as it is hard for even his most fervent admirers to deny that the Woodman has been doing little but repeating himself for at least the last 10 years, arguably the last 20. This is even setting aside oft-heard criticisms that Allen’s increasingly unrealistic worldview exists entirely within a hermetically sealed vision of the East Coast where everyone is a struggling artist who un-self-consciously uses words like canard and references to the Nuremberg trials and is consumed with “making love.”
Allen’s prolific output -- essentially one film a year for the past three decades -- has gone from being impressive to dangerously tedious, enough to make one wish that Allen would slow down and focus more, rather than recycling the same formulas in slightly different guises. Granted, there have been a few relatively bright spots here and there, notably the moving Sweet and Lowdown (1999) and the goofy postmodern playfulness of Everyone Says I Love You (1996). However, most of his films from the past decade, especially his past four comedies, have been resolutely in the middle -- not terrible, but not all that good, either. Unfortunately, one would be hard-pressed to make the case that Allen has made a truly great film since 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Allen’s entry for this year, Melinda and Melinda, has quite a bit in common with Crimes and Misdemeanors, but whereas in the earlier film Allen showed remarkable acuity in mixing comedy and drama and letting the two play off each other as he slowly revealed a unforgettable vision of a deeply troubling moral morass, now he self-consciously highlights the interaction between the two in an effort to grasp some notion of the fundamental question, “Is life a tragedy or a comedy?” It’s as if Allen, having run out of ideas, is going back to the old ones and trying to make them new by laying bare their mechanics. While it is somewhat refreshing to see him tacking a “Big Question” since his last few films have been so thin, effort in this case does not equal effectiveness.
Melinda and Melinda begins in a cozy restaurant where two couples are having dinner. The two men (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine) are playwrights, and they begin to argue over whether life is comedy or tragedy. To prove their point, they each spin a different variation of a similar story, the launching point of which is a woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) who unexpectedly crashes a posh dinner party at an Upper East Side apartment. In the tragic tale, she knows the apartment’s owners, an actor named Lee (Jonny Lee Miller) and his music-teacher wife, Laurel (Chloe Sevigny). In the comedic variation, she is merely a subletting neighbor of Susan (Amanda Peet), a feisty independent film director, and her husband, Hobie (Will Ferrell, playing the neurotic Woody role), a struggling actor whose angle on every role is playing it with a limp.
Allen’s screenplay shifts back and forth between these two stories, allowing them to reflect and refract each other at various points. Some of the narrative details are the same, while others are widely divergent, but the fundamental issues -- marital troubles, infidelity, professional frustrations, fine china and unrealistically large lofts -- are the same. The two Melindas, both of whom are deftly played by Radha Mitchell (the only complaint is that her Australian accent frequently and distractingly slips through), are likewise the same and different. Both are troubled characters with a sad past, but in the tragic story her troubles are dark and all-consuming, whereas in the comic story they are merely quirky. (Now there’s an interesting question: Where is the dividing line between quirky and dysfunctional?)
Regardless of its other problems, the primary fault of Melinda and Melinda is that Allen’s split storytelling device doesn’t answer or even get at the question he’s asking. The goal is to put into play the debate of whether life is comedy or tragedy, which is fundamentally a question of perception. After all, life cannot be quantified as one thing or another, but it can be viewed as such.
All that Allen shows is that you can take a similar opening scene and spin it into either a tragic or a funny story. The two halves of Melinda and Melinda don’t diverge in tone so much as they diverge in plot points; thus, Allen is not engaging in an examination of perception, but rather of storytelling. It’s fitting that, within half an hour, there is really little difference between the tragic and comedic Melinda stories, and the only way we know which is which is that one concludes on a sad note and the other concludes happily. For all his metaphysical “Big Question” pretensions, Allen ultimately settles on the cliché that all’s well that ends well.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 Fox Searchlight Pictures