A fresh serving of wry Woody neurosis is one of the finer dishes modern cinema has to offer. Although the bespectacled cynic may be absent from the screen in his wonderfully charming “Melinda and Melinda,” fear not — the film is saturated with his verbose wit and distinct, unrealistic adoration for New York. And, better yet, the filmmaker certainly hasn’t lost his touch for making everyday love so fantastic.
“Melinda” exquisitely maintains Allen’s formula: Confused and hopelessly eccentric thirtysomethings traverse a picture-perfect Manhattan (Central Park respites and all), exchanging existential quips as they fall in love. Handled by a bad cast, the filmmaker’s recipe can yield disastrously stupid results (see “Hollywood Ending”). But the misfit menagerie of “Melinda and Melinda” is often pitch-perfect, led by the dazzling and effortless Radha Mitchell — the only actor featured in both the comedic and tragic halves of the film.
“Melinda” begins at a post-dinner rant between New York playwrights on the true nature of life. Arguing about whether life is best communicated through comedy or tragedy, they each offer two versions of the same story about a bewildered blonde who crashes a dinner-party.
Under the auspices of tragic thought, Melinda is a former Park Avenue princess who’s traded pearls for thick mascara and a Eurotrash smoking habit. She arrives at the Pottery Barn-littered apartment of her childhood friend Laurel (a strong yet slightly underwhelming Chloe Sevigny) and her out-of-work actor husband (the annoyingly petulant Johnny Lee Miller). Melinda is distraught because of a passionate affair with a jet-set Italian man that ended her marriage (she even lost custody of her child to her ex-husband).
The film would be awash in stale dreariness if it weren’t for the giddy, surprising Will Ferrell.This parallel plot imagines life as a rambling adventure of comedic mishaps. Here we meet Melinda — whose straight hair and tidy clothes make her seem less pathetic — crying over an ex-boyfriend. After a healthy sleeping pill binge, she crashes her neighbor’s dinner party, featuring a lace apron-wrapped Hobie (Ferrell) prattling off a pretentious menu. The party is a fund-raiser for Hobie’s wife Susan (the gorgeous Amanda Peet), who is an independent filmmaker.
Melinda wins over the party guests with her life-story after purging her ill-fated suicide attempt in a toilet — which Hobie, the obvious stand-in for the arch-typically neurotic Woody Allen, straight-facedly prefers to having her vomit on his expensive living room rug. Before you can say “yuppie,” Susan has set up Melinda with the smarmy alpha-male owners of stunning beach homes in the Hamptons.
While it can be jarring at times, the parallel plot-lines often work splendidly. Avoiding the tendency to isolate the individual stories, Allen frequently weaves the stories together, deftly introducing similar plot elements to each. With this technique, neither of the plot-lines become too stagnant.
The acting is superb as well. Mitchell cements the two plots together with a steady and skillful performance as the conflicting Melindas. The befuddled and affectionate Hobie, trapped in a frigid romance, easily falls for Melinda’s exuberant cheer. Luckily for him, his wife provides him with the ideal window of opportunity for pursuing his infatuation. “I’m going through an emotionally difficult time creatively,” Susan states clinically when caught in bed with another man.
Ferrell steals the show as Allen’s reinterpreted essence — no matter what the New York Times sneers. Without losing his unique comedic style, he delivers the film’s neurotic witticisms with an elegant ease and a charm that no other character rivals.
The dismal counterpart to the mirthful Melinda story-line is slightly flawed. Lousily languishing in bad relationships, the tragedy’s cast is annoying and noticeably static. Sevigny falls short in her portrayal of Laurel with a banally subtle performance that comes across as stiff and awkward. The sad gaggle might be rife with eccentricities like their happy counterparts, but it doesn’t wield the same devastating wit. (And, of course, no one does devastating wit like Woody Allen).
Although “Melinda and Melinda” makes a valiant effort to creatively present and thoroughly analyze two polar interpretations of life, the film never reaches any profound depths. (And while it’s obviously unfair to hold a filmmaker to decades-old heights, it is difficult to forget the perfection of 1977’s “Annie Hall”). The comedy here is darling, and the drama is consistently saddening, but together they don’t quite congeal into what one might hope. While tremendously entertaining, not even two Melindas can offer anything definitive.