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Melinda and Melinda Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda opens in a restaurant, where two playwrights are debating a time-worn question: does life tend toward tragedy or comedy? One (played by Wallace Shawn) thinks that people only love his comedies because they want to escape the tragedy of their own lives, and the other (Larry Pine) thinks just the opposite. A third member of their dinner party wonders if life is a combination of both; a fourth has a great solution to the debate. He begins to tell a story, which the playwrights interpret in both tragic and comedic terms. The film then becomes the dramatization of their two ideas-Melinda and Melinda cuts between the tragic version and the funny version as the dinner guests make up the story on the fly.

What a great idea for a movie, and what a clever experiment-but why does Woody Allen do it, and what is his point? On a basic level, you could say that Melinda and Melinda is like any other Allen film, since Allen's best work always perfects the balance of drama and comedy. Annie Hall and Manhattan are masterpieces not only for their rich, intelligent humor, but also for the pangs of insecurity and fear that throb like sores beneath each of Allen's best lines. In Allen's canon, we've seen tragedy and comedy mix harmoniously-Melinda and Melinda merely deconstructs this mix into its parts. Melinda and Melinda is almost like a study of how to build a Woody Allen movie from the ground up, revealing the methods and the madness beneath Allen's polish. Maybe his point is to illustrate how he and his films work?

Or could it be that Allen is just playing around, tinkering with Mel Brooks' rule that comedy and tragedy are indistinguishable when observed from far away? I'd like to think he is. After all, so many critics have dismissed Allen's recent movies as pale reflections of his earlier work, when really, for the past couple years, Allen has been doing nothing but playing. Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Small Time Crooks-these are supposed to be taken as seriously as Manhattan, according to these critics? That's just ridiculous. Why compare Melinda and Melinda to more serious films when seriousness isn't what Allen is after? Taken for what it is, an unusually clever and off-the-cuff poignant film, Melinda and Melinda is an admirable achievement. It's not Annie Hall, of course, but who cares?

The tragic and comic versions of Melinda and Melinda are told simultaneously, so that we can compare and contrast the two tones instantly. Both versions contain the same issues and relationships, but each has a different set of characters. The tragedy version has remarkably convincing serious actors, like Chloe Sevigny, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Johnny Lee Miller, while the comedy casts the likes of Will Ferrell and Amanda Peet. Both stories have one common character, a woman named Melinda (Rhada Mitchell) who, in the tragedy, is a miserable alcoholic who falls hard for a poetic piano player (Ejiofor), and, in the comedy, is the sweet girl next door who catches the fancy of Will Ferrell's character.

The two "versions" of Melinda and Melinda are usually enjoyed individually, but the truly exciting moments occur when one version intersects or echoes the other. Magic happens when you enjoy a scene from, say, the comedy and then see the same scene in the tragedy a few minutes later, twisted ever so slightly to match the darker tone. It's evidence that Allen's creative juices haven't dried up with age-he can still crisscross different moods and concepts with a master's ease. And the movie never feels like it's trying too hard. There are no visible seams between the comedy and the tragedy; the whole film flows together like one fluid piece. Perhaps it says something about how well tragedy and comedy fit together, or perhaps it's merely another testament to Allen's brilliance.

Assessing them separately, there is a distinct quality drop-off between the tragedy and the comedy. The tragedy is some of Allen's finest recent work-the characters are fresher and more interesting, and the dialogue simmers. For example, when Melinda and the piano player first meet, the rhythm of their words mimics the clicking gears in their heads; sly and intellectually sexy, the two future lovers use wit to bear each other's souls, while wisely remembering to guard their own.

The comedy, on the other hand, has nothing as stimulating. Many of the jokes are only good for a smirk, and some of the actors are criminally underused, or just miscast. The hilarious Steve Carell is sidelined with an unfunny bit part as Will Ferrell's pal, and Ferrell himself, typically a comedic whirlwind, doesn't have enough opportunities to shine. Ferrell is given the part that Allen himself usually plays-the neurotic, lovesick urbanite-a role which Ferrell doesn't really fit. Allen probably should've cast himself in this role, although his age distances him from his young cast. In any case, Ferrell doesn't work well in this role, and it represents a squandered opportunity on Allen's part.

Melinda and Melinda, despite its ingenious efforts, will ultimately not please very many audiences. Too many people will go into it wanting to see classic Woody Allen, and they just won't get it-not because Melinda and Melinda is a failure, but because the audience will be going in a different direction than Allen. But, I promise you, if you suspend all expectations and look at this movie as something new, it can be quite entertaining. A chance is all that Melinda and Melinda needs, and it's tragic (or maybe comic?) to know that most critics won't even give it that.

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