Melinda and Melinda Review
Melinda and Melinda begins with a quartet of New York intellectuals debating – in a stylishly old-fashioned café, of course – the nature of man’s existence: is it fundamentally comic or is it irremediably tragic? To illustrate their dialectics, the group’s two playwrights offer contrasting interpretations of a story, in which a woman – the titular Melinda (Rahda Mitchell, the only actress to appear in both stories) – intrudes upon a dinner party and proceeds to wreak unintentional havoc on all those present (herself included). Though neither interpretation is entirely comic nor tragic – identical plot elements subsist in both stories and each is pervaded, to a certain extent, by both happiness and despair – each version renders the story with a different assortment of characters and an essentially dissimilar tone.
Rather than tell each version separately and in its entirety, the film cuts at infrequent intervals between the two – an effective technique, though one that does start to edge towards monotony as the film progresses. In the ‘sad’ version, Melinda turns up uninvited at a swanky dinner party being held by one of her oldest friends, Laurel (the luminous Chloe Sevigny). The party is being hosted in Laurel’s chic Manhattan apartment; the intention being to inveigle an egotistical theatre director into hiring Laurel’s similarly conceited husband, Lee (Johnny Lee Miller), for the lead role in his next production. When Melinda arrives she is quick to explain that she has recently divorced her prosperous husband and that because she had been seeing a Hispanic artist on the sly and because her husband was politically well-connected, she is no longer able to see her two children. Laurel and Cassie (Brooke Smith) attempt to set Melinda’s life back on course, the results, however, prove rather unexpected – particularly when Laurel takes an interest in Melinda’s new beau.
Compared to some of Woody Allen’s brooding masterpieces of tragicomic incisiveness (Husbands and Wives and Crimes and Misdemeanours spring to mind) this is comparatively light stuff but there are still some acutely observant moments that demonstrate why Allen remains a worthwhile (albeit erratic) American auteur. There’s a remarkably tender scene where Melinda encounters a kindly piano player (Chiwetel Ejiofor) at a party. The warmth and intelligence of the screenplay runs rings around the turgid fluff that passes for ‘romance’ these days in cinema. Unfortunately the comedy side of the film is rather more uneven. In this scenario Melinda – rather than the sombre, fiercely intelligent and tousle-haired creature of the tragic half – is a kookily cute ditz who bursts in on her neighbours’ dinner party having just (semi-unintentionally) taken an overdose. Her neighbours, Hobe (Will Ferrell) and Susan (Amanda Peet), were in the process of coaxing a moneyed businessman into financing Susan’s latest, and quite controversial, film (‘It’s called the male castration sonata’ she cheerily explains).
Susan is obnoxious, Melinda is sweet and Hobe quickly sets off down the romantic path already trodden by hundreds of comedies. There’s the usual mixture of serendipitous meet-cutes and slight romantic obstructions but of course we know from the start that things will work out just fine. For the first two thirds of the film this ‘funnier’ interpretation is given less screen-time than its sadder equivalent, which almost reduces it to a series of amusing vignettes. This actually works rather well: it helps offset the pathos of Melinda’s alternate scenario and provides a smattering of light relief without taking up too much time. Conversely, this does create difficulty when the story reaches its conclusion – though neither story ends in the least bit satisfactorily – as the plotline is so hackneyed and the character development so slight that it’s difficult to gather up much interest when the inevitable denouement is achieved.
The real delight offered by Melinda and Melinda is the calibre of the acting. Rahda Mitchell deserves the lion’s share of the plaudits for adroitly essaying two completely different characters (even if the ‘cheerful’ Melinda teeters on the edge of caricature) but the other cast members offer plenty to admire. Allen’s films often utilise, as A.O. Scott described it, a ‘pre-method’ mode of acting: which is neither constrained by the demands of method acting nor hindered by the studied credibility of naturalism. Instead we have a sort of theatrical realism; the dialogue has been intricately scripted and peppered with outmoded idioms but the actor’s imbue their parts with a breezy casualness that’s liberating in its freedom and believability. Chloe Sevigny’s nuanced and delicate performance more than compensates for the recent Brown Bunny debacle, Brooke Smith is wryly ambiguous as Cassie and Chiwetel Ejiofor does the likeable, sentient male very well.
Woody Allen does not grace this film with his presence as an actor; instead he uses Will Ferrell as his stand-in. The results are mixed. Aside from the slight surprise of seeing the tall and comparatively quite macho Ferrell doubling for the diminutive and nebbish Allen, Ferrell’s performance is entirely dependant on the acidic quality of his innumerable quips, which I felt failed to deliver. Initially it’s quite an amusing performance but it quickly becomes wearisomely neurotic – but then again, this is generally how I perceive any performance given by Woody Allen or his various doppelgangers. The film ends limply at best: rather than unite the stories and see what insight this coalescence provides, each Melinda ends individually and with cumbersome haste. To add the final insult we get a cute little ‘wrap-up’ from the intellectuals, who tidily summarise the meaning of what we’ve seen. Odd that Allen, who obstinately refrains from divulging the allegorical significance of his films, should leave it to this non-descript group to clarify that which should remain murky.
Melinda and Melinda is blessed with a strong 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. Though in places the image looks a little on the soft side it nonetheless captures the beauty of the film’s cinematography. The transfer nicely portrays the film’s rich colours and warm hues and is generally pleasing to the eyes.
The sound isn’t quite as good, principally because it’s presented in mono and is thus victim to the soundtrack’s attendant limitations. It’s still relatively good though, since this is basically a ‘talky’ film it has quite an easy job on its hands and the dialogue sounds clear and strong. The occasional jazz interludes are also done quite well.
Unfortunately there are no extra features.
After dipping to an all-time low with last year's Anything Else Woody Allen is clearly back on form. Melinda and Melinda is accessible, entertaining and intermittently even thought-provoking. The disc is a competent presentation of the film and as long as you can stomach the absence of extra features it’s a good enough purchase.