Woody Allen's story about two versions of the same woman fell flat for all the versions of one other woman—Judge Jennifer Malkowski.
"Let me tell you a story, and you tell me: is it material for a comedy or a tragedy?"
Woody Allen combines his two favorite genres in one movie that tells two versions of the same story. The usual suspects are all here in a film about love and betrayal among the New York intelligentsia.
Facts of the Case
A pair of playwrights get into a casual debate about whether life is inherently more comic or tragic. A friend tells them a story about a woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) and the playwrights take turns transforming it into comedy or tragedy.
The tragic version finds a despondent Melinda arriving at an old friend's doorstep during an important dinner party. The friend, Laurel (Chloë Sevigny), is married to Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), a philandering, alcoholic out-of-work actor. The couple takes Melinda in and after hearing her story of adultery, divorce, and a losing custody battle, tries to help her get her life back on track. Through them, Melinda meets a dashing piano player, Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and begins to hope that she can find love again.
The comic version twists these same characters and plotlines slightly. Laurel and Lee are now Susan (Amanda Peet) and Hobie (Will Ferrell), neighbors who don't know Melinda until she interrupts their dinner party during a half-hearted suicide attempt to throw up in their bathroom. Hobie befriends the lonely Melinda and steadily becomes attracted to her. But his marriage and her new boyfriend stand in the way of his desires.
Detractors of Woody Allen's later films usually have two major complaints: he's too old to date all the beautiful women he stars with, and all his movies have the exact same plot. Allen seems to have given in on the first of the two; he no longer stars as one of the romantic leads, handing that job over to actors such as Jason Biggs in Anything Else and Will Ferrell in Melinda and Melinda. But Allen sings the same old song plotwise in this film with his ensemble of neurotic New Yorkers who sleep around and fall illogically in love. The only difference is that he has added a gimmick: the splitting of his story into two opposing genres.
The biggest problem with said gimmick is that Allen plays it safe, not going for the big laughs or the big tears. The tragedy playwright admits that perhaps, "in the end all you can do is laugh," but you won't laugh very hard in the comic segment of Melinda and Melinda. Allen's humor hasn't been laugh-out-loud funny for a long time, and here his wit barely registers a chuckle. The only savior in this department is the always-funny Ferrell who does a great job filling Allen's shoes as the overly anxious, emasculated, and quirky male lead. To really contrast the comic to the tragic, Allen might have considered a return to the absurdist, slapstick style of his early films. If I had laughed as much in this movie as I did in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask or Sleeper, the genre contrast would have resonated a lot better.
The comedy section isn't quite comical and the tragedy section, similarly, is not that tragic. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is tragic, but Allen doesn't write Melinda's character as especially likeable, so the audience doesn't particularly care when tragedy inevitably befalls her. The under-praised Mitchell, for her part, does great work playing the self-described "heroine too high-strung for this planet." She's good at crazy—and anxious, nervous, alcoholic, drug-addicted, vulnerable, and melodramatic. Mitchell summons them all up as she stands around telling her tragic tale with both hands shaking, a cigarette in one and a cocktail in the other. Unfortunately, the other actors surrounding her do not display the same talent. Miller and Sevigny perform quite poorly, unable to overcome the admittedly awkward lines Allen gives them. Miller comes off as more pretentious than one can believe, even for his ultra-pretentious character. Sevigny—trying for a WASPy propriety and repression—delivers her dialogue as if reading it off a page for some junior-high theater audition. Her performance is most disappointing in light of her fantastic turn as a compassionate girl stuck in a wasteland of hate and depression in Boys Don't Cry.
The tone of the film follows one playwright's assessment that "comic or tragic, the most important thing to do is to enjoy life while you can. Because we only go around once." Like this statement, it is an innocuous gesture that says less than it hopes to. Watching Melinda and Melinda reminded me more of a similar piece of Allen's philosophy, a joke he tells at the beginning of Annie Hall that ends with the punchline, "The food here is terrible. And such small portions!" I think that about Allen's career these days. Even though I know the films are mediocre, I always go back for more, either hoping for improvement or just enjoying what I can.
The disc of Melinda and Melinda itself is technically adequate, though the mono tracks leave something to be desired. Perhaps after telling this same story so many times, Allen would not have much to say on a commentary track about this subpar rendition, but to offer up not a single extra?
When Melinda meets her handsome prince, Ellis Moonsong, she is crying. He asks her, "Are those tears of sorrow or tears of joy?"
Melinda responds, "Aren't those the same tears?"
As it turns out in Melinda and Melinda, they are, but only because Allen plays the story in the middle, producing neither laughter nor tears in comic and tragic segments which don't feel that different. My rating sits right in the middle, too. The film is neither bad nor good, but blandly adequate.
Judge Jennifer Malkowski finds Woody Allen guilty of a long filmmaking slump. He is hereby sentenced to imprisonment, but he will be granted a typewriter. When he writes a decent new script, he will be free to go (to direct it).
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