Melinda and Melinda Review
Throughout his career Woody Allen has been torn between his natural leaning towards comedy and his desire to make serious films like the great directors he admires – Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa. The traces of those directors can be found in such Allen films as Stardust Memories and Celebrity (Fellini) or Interiors and September (Bergman). When he isn’t trying straight out to imitate Fellini or Bergman and tries to find a blend of the two styles – as in Hannah And Her Sisters or Crimes and Misdemeanors – the results are often interesting, creating strange dual storylines where one set of characters reflect on the meaning of life while Allen’s character plays his way through broader relationship farces – the two halves never however quite seeming to cohere into a single film. At his very best, in Annie Hall and Manhattan, Allen’s own stamp is most evident, unforced by a need to conform to what he thinks is great cinema and simply doing what he does best (self-deprecating and farcical relationship situations) with the kind of New York people he knows best (upper middle-class Manhattan intellectuals and artists). In his latest film, Melinda and Melinda, Allen works with the situations he knows best and the people he knows best while at the same time addressing the fundamental question that has plagued him throughout his career. Which best sums up our outlook on life – comedy or tragedy?
Two writers, over dinner in a bar, consider the basic elements of a story they have just been told about a woman called Melinda (Radha Mitchell) who unexpectedly interrupts a dinner party, bringing the baggage of a broken marriage and an attempted suicide onto two old school friends and their husbands. One of the writers immediately sees the tragic side of the story and expounds his theory of how he sees it playing out. The other writer however is drawn to the comic elements of the situation and tells his version. In looking at both sides of the story, they try to consider which way most effectively captures the essence of human nature. Do people relate more to life by embracing its tragic elements? Does humour help us to face up to the absurdity of life or does it just a way of escaping from it? In the tragic version of the story, Melinda’s intrusion results in her staying with her friend Laurel and her husband Ellis (Chloë Sevigny and Jonny Lee Miller). Trying to help their friend get started again after a serious marriage break-up, a tragic affair and the loss of custody of her children, Laurel and Ellis introduce Melinda to new men, but their own marriage is failing and Melinda’s complications become embroiled in theirs. In the humorous version of the story, Melinda stumbles in on Susan and Hobie (Amanda Peet and Will Ferrell) who are also going through marriage problems. Hobie falls in love with Melinda, the comedy arising out of Hobie not being happy with the wife’s attempts to get her a date with a rich handsome dentist.
This is simply Allen’s best work in years, where he has taken a bit of a gamble and it seems to have paid off. With only the barest of introductions to the concept, Allen intermingles the two different versions of the story – each with entirely different casts with the exception of Radha Mitchell as Melinda – risking confusing the viewer and alienating different parts of the audience who may not respond to one of the styles, finding either the comic or the tragic elements obtrusive. At the beginning there is the feeling that neither respective element is exclusively funny or tragic enough to support the film’s premise – but through a couple of key common scenes – the rubbing of a ‘magic lamp’ and an intimate dinner at a candlelit restaurant, each film takes a decisive turn, at the same time using the same elements to very different purposes. This is a much more considered script from Woody Allen than we have been used to lately – an intelligent idea well developed, marvellously switching dialogue and characteristics between the two stories with subtle (now there’s a word we haven’t been able to apply to a Woody Allen film for quite a while...) shifts of emphasis and tone. It's a very talky film and the dialogue is a little bit stilted in places and expository - a common problem in Allen films where the characters seem to be speaking for the benefit of the viewer rather than to each other - but the theatrical tone can be explained away in this one with the authorial presence of the two theatrical "writers".
What really holds this one together however is Allen’s inspired casting, avoiding the big-name celebrities making cameos for a younger, more up-and-coming cast who all put in creditable performances. Radha Mitchell is superb in both roles as Melinda – quite easily allowing you to follow which one you are seeing in each part of the film – but Will Ferrell, the comedy actor of the moment, is superb in the traditional Woody Allen role (Woody himself doesn’t appear in this one), delivering some of the funniest lines we have heard from Allen in a long time (in particular one memorable sequence in which he wrestles with his Liberal conscience in order to sleep with a sexy Republican investment advisor), demonstrating a comic timing and style that doesn’t just rely on an Allen impersonation. This is a fabulous return to form for Woody Allen. While not one of his great films, it's probably the best thing he has done since Hannah and her Sisters and certainly supasses the rather weak Anything Else and the abysmal Hollywood Ending. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry – and if it does both, then Woody has made his point and made it well.