Following the pleasant surprise of revisiting Anything Else, I was looking forward to Woody Allen’s next film, Melinda and Melinda. This is another contemporary set film but with a curious conceit: two arguing playwrights present alternate versions of a story based around the same character, with one story a comedy and one a tragedy.
That character is Melinda (Radha Mitchell) who in both versions of the story interrupts a dinner party of old friends having arrived in New York for a fresh start. In the comedy, Melinda becomes the object of desire for Hobie (Will Ferrell), the milquetoast actor husband of an emerging film director Susan (Amanda Peet). In the tragedy version, Melinda moves in with old friend Laurel (Chloë Sevigny) and her troubled husband, and begins a relationship with musician (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
I could hardly remember anything from seeing this film the first time around ten years ago, and now I realise why. It’s mostly fairly forgettable. For me the most interesting scenes are those set in the restaurant as the playwrights back and forth over life being a tragedy or comedy, and how one can choose to see the world. The irony is that in this case, as written by Woody, there is actually very little difference. The tragedy is not that tragic – it’s more of a drawn out drama. And the comedy is not that funny. Maybe because both stories are treated as a theoretical debate, there isn’t all that much engagement with the characters or their plight.
Perhaps if, as in Crimes and Misdemeanours, the two story lines somehow crossed over, it would have held my attention more. (This film is back to the regular running time of 90 minutes, though at times even that feels like a slog.) There are nice touches in the writing to show how similar story beats are felt differently by an audience. A cheating partner in one is unsympathetic, while in the other it’s amusing. A dimly lit restaurant in one has an erotic charge, while in the other it merely heightens the comic irony of the scene.
Also interesting is how Woody handles the two genres stylistically. The costumes and makeup gives Radha Mitchell a more harried look in the drama. The photography is brighter in the comedy. The music alternates between Errol Garner and Stravinsky, depending on the generic style. It’s almost as if the filmmaker is admitting to his trademark motifs. (Speaking of which the wonderful pianist Dick Hyman is back performing on this film’s soundtrack.)
While at times it appears that Woody is going through the paces, I have to give him credit for doing that in two genres. Where Melinda and Melinda is a step up from his previous films is the casting. Will Ferrell is endearing and really funny, throwing out more than a few nervous Woodyisms and offering more physical comedy than we normally see in a a Woody Allen film, and the supporting cast is mostly excellent given what little screen time they have. And while Radha Mitchell might not show the emotional depth of her fellow Australians Judy Davis or Cate Blanchett, she is still very effective, especially in the tragic storyline. “Stop, Melinda,” a friend says after a long and harrowing monologue about her awful situation. “Why?” Melinda asks, “It only gets worse.”
For Woody Allen, with his next film things were thankfully about to get much better.
Next week: Match Point