SO THESE two middle-aged men (I think I just lost some readers already) are sitting around a table talking. Sy (Wallace Shawn) is a playwright of comedies. Max (Larry Pine) -- and there's always a Max in a Woody Allen movie -- writes tragedies. They're having the kind of pretentious chat that could only happen in Allen's mind, using words like "profundity" and "soul." The subject of discussion is the intersection and/or the difference between comedy and tragedy. (Readers are now paring down to intellectuals, former dance or drama students and fans of irony.)
To explore their points, Sy and Max concoct a mutually made-up story two different ways in the Allen film "Melinda and Melinda." Max's version is tragic and laced with suffering. Sy's tale is essentially comic and, wouldn't you know, also full of misery.
The point being made, and a familiar one at that, is the special relationship between those genres: Humor is tragedy slipping on a banana peel. Tragedy is humor without the punch lines. This rather pedantic opening threatens to stall the movie in its tracks. (Is it flick or academic trick?) But luckily, we leave this wearisome table and get into the stories themselves, with Australian actor Radha Mitchell playing the central role of Melinda in both. (Hence the double-named title.)
There are similarities in both versions, which makes trying to keep track of everything rather demanding, as we switch from the funny "Melinda" to the tragic one. The other difficulty is that Mitchell's performances aren't distinctive enough to help you, despite some radical differences in her two characters.
In the "tragic" version, she's an old friend and an unexpected guest at a Manhattan dinner party, who comes (returns in some cases) into the lives of out-of-work, alcoholic actor Lee (Jonny Lee Miller) and Laurel (Chloe Sevigny), and their mutual friend Cassie (Brooke Smith). Melinda is also a walking time bomb with a recent past of attempted suicide, the lost custody of her two children and a little time in a psychiatric ward.
Cassie's attempt to find Melinda a new man leads to more complications. Attracted to musical composer Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor from "Dirty Pretty Things"), Melinda thinks she is on the road to happiness. That is, until Laurel and Ellis become attracted to each other.
In Sy's "funny" version, Mitchell is a downstairs resident in the building who bursts into the apartment of also-unemployed actor Hobie (Will Ferrell) and his filmmaker wife, Susan (Amanda Peet), saying she has swallowed 28 sleeping pills. One thing leads to another. They all become friends. And as the marriage between Hobie and Susan founders, Hobie finds himself increasingly attracted to Melinda, even though she has found a new man.
The details are so complex and interconnected, it becomes more comfortable to let it all wash over you and simply appreciate the passing pleasures. These amount to two things: the performers and Allen's jokes. Thus, you can find yourself admiring the Venetian-blind sultriness of Sevigny's eyes, Ejiofor's robust masculinity and most pleasurably of all, Ferrell, whose intrinsic goofiness is a constant tickle. Plus he gets the fattest share of Allen's jokes.
"Did you shoot all the furniture we're sitting in?" Hobie aggressively asks a dentist whose Hamptons home is filled with chairs made of horns and tusks.
At its best, "Melinda and Melinda" is a medium-boil good time, mostly for its humor. At its worst, it shows Allen's relative weakness when it comes to more serious human drama; he seems forever indebted to and intimidated by Chekhov. This isn't Allen's greatest film by any stretch of the imagination but, thankfully, it's nowhere close to his worst. It is, however, a movie whose potential continually looms large. You keep watching this, hoping for and expecting better. Which also makes you wonder how things might have changed if Allen had selected a pair of perkier playwrights to get the movie rolling. In a way, "Melinda and Melinda" is about making sure, when you come to a restaurant, that you're seated at the right table.
MELINDA AND MELINDA (PG-13, 99 minutes) -- Contains adult material, sexual situations, and substance use. Area theaters.