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'Melinda and Melinda': A Tragedy, a Comedy, a Mess

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page C01

Give Woody Allen credit for ambition. Failing at one movie wasn't enough. Nearly anyone can do that; it happens all the time. He's chosen to fail at two simultaneously.

One is called "Melinda" and the other, for a change, "Melinda." Thus we get the somewhat strained overarching title "Melinda and Melinda," which suggests either duality or redundancy, you pick.

Chloe Sevigny and Radha Mitchell in Woody Allen's puzzling "Melinda and Melinda." (Brian Hamill -- Fox Searchlight)

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The project gets off to a shaky start, laboring far too long to set up its premise. In a Greenwich Village eatery -- where smart Manhattanites of the sort Allen loves so passionately gather to fling epiphanies and bons mots off each other while lofting irony-fueled eyebrows and drinking pinot grigio -- two men are having a friendly kind of argument. It develops quickly enough that each is a famed playwright and each has a specialty: One (Larry Pine) writes tragedy, the other (Wallace Shawn) comedy. The argument is over which form is truer to life.

A third man at the table has a proposal. He will relate a small domestic tale of his recent experience, about the sudden arrival of a long-lost friend named Melinda into the homes and bosom of some sophisticated New Yorkers, with somewhat spectacular consequences for everybody. Then the tragedian and the comedian will take alternating Melinda-turns, spinning events and construing personalities appropriate to each's worldview, which Allen, the director, will dramatize.

If this isn't fruity enough, Allen adds yet another dimension of fructose: Each story is a heavily influenced spinoff of that laff-riot and reader-friendly comic strip "Madame Bovary." It's the old familiar about the wife of a provincial doctor who can't get her romantic longings out of her head and dallies, then flees bourgeois life and motherhood and goes to the big city. (Her arrival signals the beginning of Allen's two stories.) But instead of finding fulfillment, she finds agony and despair.

What this means, of course, is that neither story will be coherent, fully fleshed and develop a full arc. After all, it took Flaubert 512 pages; why does Woody Allen think he can do it in 100 minutes? We get not a story but what might be called postcards from each half-story, which play off each other even as they embrace roughly the same material, the story of Emma-Melinda's travails and engagements in the big city she so longed for.

It would help greatly, however, if we could tell them apart. The tragedy is not particularly tragic except in rote recitation of what came before, the comedy not particularly comic.

You would think that Allen could use the form of "Melinda and Melinda" to address his own central issue, which has haunted the 40 years of his writing-directing career: His ease at, genius with and contempt for comedy, as opposed to his respect for, lack of talent at and general clumsiness with drama. But each story is pretty much a wash and most people will lose track at the halfway point as to which one they are currently in.

The dead giveaway, for those who care, is Will Ferrell. Ferrell is the signifier of comedy. He should wear a jester's cap and carry a mock scepter. But this doesn't really work: In many of the films Woody Allen has made of late -- now that critics have informed him he's too old to fail with a better class of woman -- he uses a kind of Woody surrogate, who apes his trademark neurotic East Side delivery and gets all the wisecracks at his own expense. Actors as diffuse as Kenneth Branagh ("Celebrity"), John Cusack ("Bullets Over Broadway") and Jason Biggs ("Anything Else") have had a try at this. What you see is someone imitating Woody Allen on screen -- the anxiety attack, the clammy desperation, the self-doubt -- but you want the real thing, and any impersonation grows tiring after a while. Poor guy: If he casts himself, everybody says, "Who wants to see that old man kiss Tea Leoni? Ew." And if he casts someone else everybody says, "Who wants to see Will Ferrell play Woody Allen?"

Then there's the issue of Melinda. The Australian actress Radha Mitchell plays her in each variant, and neither performance is particularly memorable. Actually, in the funny one, I can't remember her at all because there's so much of Ferrell, as the husband of one of Melinda's new chums, who falls in love with her even as his own marriage is falling apart. But she's easy to notice in the sad one, because the other performers -- Jonny Lee Miller, for one, expressionless Chloe Sevigny for another -- are so uninteresting. Again, the husband of a friend falls in love with her. Then Melinda, who is white, has an affair with a black man of the magical variety (that happens in the funny story, too). She stands out because she's a mess: The performance has been dialed too intense, and she's actually unpleasant to watch, chain smoking with shaky fingers, continually poking at her hair.

You keep wanting this to go somewhere, to build to something. The movie's most salient sensation is that it's a feature story for New York Magazine on swank apartments. Each one of these places has the perfect look of the magazine layout, with accent pieces (who the hell has accent pieces, for God's sake! Who can think of stuff like that?) laid out on dustless, recently polished tables, the newspapers neatly piled and possibly chronologized, the books seemingly organized into fiction and nonfiction by the Dewey Decimal System. Agghhhh! In rooms like this life isn't lived -- furniture is photographed.

And besides Flaubert's ghost, another big literary mojo hovers inappropriately in "Melinda and Melinda." I couldn't help noticing he's helped himself to three of the singular stars from Louis Malle's brilliant evocation of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," called "Vanya on 42nd Street." That 1994 movie was a seamless postmodern retelling, about a bunch of actors who got together in a rotted old movie theater and talked their way through the Chekhov work; at one magic moment, it ceased to be about actors reading and became a brilliant, if low-tech, street-clothes version of "Vanya." In that film, Pine, Shawn and Brooke Smith (you'll recognize her as "the girl from 'Silence of the Lambs' ") stood out without -- this is the magic of Malle, the magic of producer Andre Gregory and the magic of Chekhov -- really standing out at all. It's as if Allen yearns to recapture that magic, and re-evoke a classical work with a new tone. But the echoes simply make this version seem feebler.

It's hard to place the film in the Allen canon because so much of his recent work is so unmemorable. To have an opinion about whether "Melinda and Melinda" is better than 2003's "Anything Else," I'd have to remember at least seven seconds of "Anything Else." Yet nothing lingers. Certainly it's not on a plane with his great works of the '70s and '80s. I understand that he's trying to re-create an old-director's career and that he'll be almost certainly the last one allowed to do so, turning out a film a year with the hope of looking back on more good ones than bad ones. And yet you think: Why is he working so hard? He needs a rest.

Melinda and Melinda (100 minutes at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual innuendo and drug references.

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