A film review by Craig J. Koban
MELINDA AND MELINDA
2005, PG-13, 99 mins.
Melinda: Radha Mitchell / Hobie: Will Ferrell / Laurel: Chloe Sevigny
/ Lee: Jonny Lee Miller / Susan: Amanda Peet / Sy: Wallace Shawn
/ Greg: Josh Brolin / Max: Larry Pine
"Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people."
I have often taken great pains in my reviews to point out my disdain for filmmakers that go to their creative well far too often. Honestly, nothing is more puerile and nauseatingly dull than when a great director rehashes the same material and themes to forge his latest cinematic offering to the masses.
Yet - in an ironic way - if a director takes old themes, characters, and settings and utilizes them well and creates a final work that ultimately succeeds as a truly satisfying film going experience, then mission accomplished. Case in point - Woody Allen’s newest offbeat film - MELINDA AND MELINDA. It feels largely like the Allen of old with all of his aesthetic cravings, but it nevertheless is the same old Allen done with his quintessential able-bodied spirit and penchant for the unusual and whimsical. For what it is...it works marvelously.
Now, truth be told, Allen peaked as a filmmaker years ago. His latest films over the last few years have been mixed bags. 2000’s SMALL TOWN CROOKS was oftentimes laugh-out-loud funny, but poorly focused. 2001’s THE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION was involving, yet flawed. 2002’s HOLLYWOOD ENDING was a mediocre comic outing, at best. Even Allen - at his worst - has never made a film that was egregiously awful or dreadful to sit through. His last truly great film was 1996's EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU, a wondrous and enlightening musical filled with joy and folly. I guess if you consider his career as a whole, Allen has a great deal to hold up to today with his new films. I think that his masterful days of ANNIE HALL, HANNA AND HER SISTERS, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, and CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS are somewhat behind him.
Having said all of that, one could make the same claim for most filmmakers in general. Despite his last few inspiring films, none of Martin Scorsese’s latest works can touch his masterpieces of the 70’s and early 80’s. The same could also be held true to other directors like Spielberg, Lucas, and DePalma. It is safe to say that entering into a Woody Allen film elicits certain levels of modest expectations of quality from the audience. To most Allen film scholars, MELINDA AND MELINDA may feel like a laboriously constructed film with all of Allen’s signature moves – quirky, flawed, and oppressively neurotic characters; well written and sharp dialogue that is crisp and ripe with sarcasm; and human interactions that occupy a oddly constructed narrative.
In some ways, it does appear that Allen is seemingly ripping off…well…himself. MELINDA AND MELINDA, in small portions, does play an awful lot like many of his other past works. Yet, the film is incredibly engaging, the performances shine, the dialogue sparkles, and the overall story construction is intriguing. In many ways, this is Allen’s return to form. More than any film I’ve seen recently, MELINDA AND MELINDA even goes as far to reveal the filmmaker’s own thought processes and inner catharsis. He’s battling his own wits about what tone makes for the best film, and his own intellectual struggles manifest themselves in the film.
The film is convoluted at a certain base level, but it begins modestly and simply. A group of friends are shown having dinner at one of those typical Manhattan restaurants that seems to bring out the best of polite, artistic arguments from its closet intellectual cliental. The great Wallace Shawn plays one of the friends, a regular Allen alumnus who commands great screen presence from his mischievous and verbal logic that borders on labyrinthian. Shawn's character is a New York playwright who is engaging in a friendly battle of devil’s advocate with his other friend, another writer played by Larry Pine. Their argument is based on one simple precept – is the world essentially unapologetically tragic or side-splittingly comic? They soon look at two divergent tones for the same story and debate, through the film, which version of the same story bares the most veracity. Will Shawn’s comic interpretation of the story ring true or will Pine’s more dark and foreboding tale win us over?
What then happens is the overall hook of the entire film. Allen then dramatizes the two tales of the friends and, in essence, creates two little films within the film. These two films are intercut between the two friends arguing over which one of them is correct in their interpretation of the story. Allen, in an absorbing manner, utilizes the same female actress (in this case, the beautiful Radha Mitchell) to play the same essential part, but in two different contexts – one tragic and the other more comical. The core of her character is the same, as is her story arc, but it is just her interplay with the other characters and the overall tone that is different between the two pieces. Allen cuts between both of these stories and the dinner conversation surprisingly seamlessly, especially if one considers how complicated the proceedings could have become. After a few mere minutes, if is not difficult to divulge which story we are watching and what is happening at key vantage points.
So, what are the two stories? In one Melinda (Mitchell) is the downstairs neighbour of an ambitious independent filmmaker (Amanda Peet, always funny) and her out-of-work actor husband, Hobie (the drastically reigned-in Will Ferrell; more on him later). In the other “version” of the story - the decidedly more tragic one - Melinda (again played by Mitchell) is an sad, down-on-her luck alcoholic friend of a rich woman, Laurel (Chloe Sevigny). Laurel is married to Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), who also shares Melinda’s propensity to drink, but does not seem to like Melinda very much.
Both “versions” of the story have their respective differing qualities, primarily in the way their plots move from point A to B and especially in terms of their overall mood. Melinda - in the comic version - is bubbly, likeable, if not flawed with inner turmoil. Melinda - in the tragic version - is a drunkard that is so filled with self loathing that you want to smack some congeniality and self-esteem into her (“Melinda had a reputation for being Postmodern in bed, “ Laurel later recounts). Yet, what the two films share in common is one undeniable trait – Melinda is the springboard for adultery for both sets of adults.
Yet, despite the fact that both stories deal with the same often-downbeat theme, both have very dissimilar ways at arriving at certain points of their narratives. This is also true for their characters as well. In one story the out-of-work actor husband, Hobie, is likeable, if not a bit of a spineless jellyfish. In the other story, the out-of-work actor husband is vile and somewhat repulsive in his outlook. Both stories also differ in the exactly who has committed the adulterous acts and where those adulterous acts took place. Both also differ in the reveal of the moments where one spouse discovers the incident of infidelity, not to mention their reactions. Both stories also have moments of attempted suicide – one played straight for drama and the other (which occurs after) is played for broad, ironic laughs in spite of the dramatic version.
MELINDA AND MELINDA has been criticized as being too sketchy and ill defined with its overall story. Yet, those critics forget that this is a film about two writers who are debating which version of the same story proves to be superior. The two different versions of the same story seem cobbled together because – don’t forget – they are quickly and hastily developed by two men at a dinner table. Neither of the stories really need structure, nor a definitive first, second, or third act because I don’t think the men at the table were alluding to that. Watching the two little films take place is like watching the manifestations of two screenwriters talking about their ideas for dramatic works and then seeing them actually materialize on screen. The two version of the same story are kind of like first drafts, in way, and ones that lack polish, focus, and most importantly, resolution. Strong and well-realized stories are not the aims of the playwrights at the table – they want to see with version rings more truly in spirit and mood. Greatly developed characters and an established plot are redundant entities. Allen’s overall film represents this truthfully.
So, which one works the best? I dunno. Does Allen know? I dunno. I do not think that MELINDA AND MELINDA is his graduate thesis on what he thinks works best for dramatic purposes. Rather, I think this film is his way of living his own inner cinematic dilemmas vicariously through the film he has, in fact, made. The two playwrights sort of seem like the two halves of Allen himself and he writes them with such precision and logic that it almost feels like Allen is debating himself in his own mind. Perhaps this is the same creative crisis that Allen goes through when he tackles any new film venture? If anything, MELINDA AND MELINDA strongly reveals the voice and mentality of the man behind the camera, to be sure. The fact that there seems to be an imbalance between the two is the film’s key strength. It’s not Allen telling us what he thinks, nor is it telling us what to think. In reality, it’s him telling us what he can’t decide. The film is about the obsessive impulses that most artists go through to try to bring focus to a project.
True to form, Allen’s dialogue sizzles and sparkles, which can be said of both the two dramatized versions of the Melinda story as well as the dinner story between the writers. Many of the strongest moments of sardonic and thoughtful laughs come from Hobie’s character, played in a very good performance by Will Ferrell. It soon becomes obvious that Ferrell is more or less playing the typical stock character that Allen himself has played in many of his past films. You know, the ones with those great, self-deprecating lines that bathe in self-angst and humorous misery of one's own present status in the world. Ferrell has one classic Allen-esque moment with his wife (Hobie: You feel like we don't communicate anymore? Susan: Of course we communicate. Now can we not talk about it anymore?) as well as later when he is asked what he does for exercise (“The occasional anxiety attack.”).
Some may leave the film feeling that Allen has stubbornly subdued and negated Ferrell’s obvious comic energy and zaniness, but Allen should be credited for honing in Ferrell’s hilarious ferocity to create a more real protagonist that generates real laughs in more subtle ways. Ferrell is more low key here and gets more chuckles for how he interacts with others and for what he says, not for what he does. However, he does have one riotously funny moment involving a door and a bathrobe.
As surprisingly effective as Ferrell is, the true find of the film is Radha Mitchell, who is given the most thankless job of any actor in the film of playing the same role twice over with different impulses and drives. She has been largely under the radar in terms of star presence in contemporary films (her biggest film roles to date in terms of populist entertainments include PHONE BOOTH, FINDING NEVERLAND, and PITCH BLACK). Watching her in MELINDA AND MELINDA is to watch an actress sink her teeth into a role (or roles) that most would love to try. In this case, she gets to play two roles for the price of one, and her energy, spunk, charisma shines through both characters. This is a career making, break-out performance for her.
Woody Allen’s MELINDA AND MELINDA may not be the equal to some of best works of the past, but it remains a great work because it represents him at his finest in years. The film has sublime performances of real gusto, not to mention that the overall story is complex, but expertly interconnected and cohesive. Allen’s dialogue feels familiar, but is as fresh, gently amusing, brainy, and capricious as ever. The film may not be as rousing or pleasing as the types of films we have loved from Allen’s more formative years, but MELINDA AND MELINDA offers his fans some definite reassurance that he most certainly has not lost his touch. The film does not deserve worthy comparison to his greatest works, but it breezes by as an effective nostalgic piece that reminds us of those films. In a strange way, the film offers us an intimate glimpse into the filmmaker’s own obsessive drives, inner compulsions and artistic battles that he most certainly has gone through. Sure, Allen went back to the well with this film, but he at least did it efficiently and successfully.