Melinda and Melinda

Woody Allen has chosen to give us two mediocre movies wrapped in one with Melinda and Melinda, a forgettable and contrived styling exercise that proves too much of a bad thing isn’t good. 
Spurned on by an academic debate between two playwrights over the meaning of tragedies and comedies in the modern theater, Melinda and Melinda is more a gimmick in search of a sustainable plot than a fully fleshed out film. Incomplete and yet also bursting at the seams with clichés, Melinda and Melinda will only be enjoyable for masochists and Woody Allen fans. (Two groups which are, of course, completely compatible with one another.) 
The film opens on four friends discussing the finer points of contemporary playwriting while eating at a casual Chinese restaurant. Sy (Wallace Shawn) and Max (Larry Pine) write in different genres: Sy makes romantic comedies while Max prefers gritty tragedies. Max believes comedies are escapist and the truer art form is drama, which attempts to grapple with relationships and life in a serious manner. Sy, of course, defends comedy, and the discussion leads to a debate over the nature of the universe as a comedic or tragic stage.
A third friend recounts a story and the two playwrights construct competing narratives to illustrate the strengths of their respective genres. Most of the film is taken up by these two stories, which compete for validity, causing the film to feel fragmented and disjointed rather than cohesive.
In the dramatic story, Melinda (Radha Mitchell) interrupts a dinner party held by her friends Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) and her husband, Lee (Jonny Lee Miller). The three went to college together, but Melinda has fallen on rough times since, divorcing her surgeon husband, losing custody of her two children, falling for – and murdering – a Parisian photographer, and eventually finding herself in an insane asylum.
This story stresses the interrelationship of its characters – five of the dinner guests are old friends – and explores the wounds Melinda carries. Melinda is a chain-smoking neurotic, but the other characters are also out of control. Although Laurel and Lee seem to have it all, Lee’s alcoholism jeopardizes their marriage while Laurel’s Madison Avenue lifestyle threatens them financially.
In the comedic story, Melinda (again played by Radha Mitchell) interrupts her downstairs neighbors’ dinner party. In this story, an out-of-work actor named Hobie (Will Ferell) and his career-driven, filmmaking wife Susan (Amanda Peet) are hob-snobbing a wealthy financier when Melinda knocks in the door in a drug-induced stupor.
This version of the narrative has Hobie pining for Melinda in secret as his own marriage crumbles. When he’s finally in a position to act on his feelings, she confesses that she’s fallen in love, and the rest of the story unfolds like an episode of your favorite television sitcom.
Neither story is particularly compelling, and the overarching resolution offered by Sy and Max seems too pat to be taken seriously. The tragic story features some truly terrible, clunky dialog, the sort where women say, “Falling in love will work wonders on you, dear.” On the other hand, the comedic story is about as amusing as a Three’s Company marathon, proving that whatever Ferell touches does not necessarily turn to gold.
Melinda and Melinda is a lovely looking film, with some nice directorial shots. No one does New York like Woody Allen. He has a gift for making even run-down alleyways look elegant, and the lofts and apartment are really quite lovely, but I don’t know what it says about the film when a dark bistro upstages its plot and characters. I don’t want Laurel’s dining room to be more interesting than the character herself.
It’s difficult to know what motivated Allen to make this tired sack of clichés. In the final third of the film the horrid ponderousness of the tragic story becomes so laughable that I heard some nervous chuckles in the audience, but the comedic section becomes so predictably boring that the sense of dread was a physical force in the theater, too.
I won’t hazard a guess as to which part of the movie is worst – leaving the decision “in the eye of the beholder,” the film’s major philosophical declaration – but I wish that next time Woody could just clobber us with one bad movie at a time.


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