May 1, 2005 -- “Melinda and Melinda,” the latest Woody Allen film, doesn't star Woody Allen, but it nonetheless bears his unmistakable stamp. Comedian Will Farrell takes Woody's place in this film, and turns in a good performance as a Woody Allen clone in the role of Hobie, a New York actor who is neurotic and having marital difficulties. As usual, Allen both writes and directs the film.
Like most Woody Allen films, the story takes place in New York. It starts with an after-dinner conversation among New York intellectuals recounting a story about a troubled young woman, Melinda (Radha Mitchell of “Finding Neverland”), who barges uninvited into a dinner party. This leads to a series of events which are alternatively portrayed as either tragic or comic, depending on your point of view. Two playwrights, one specializing in comedies, Cy (Wallace Shawn of “Curse of the Jade Scorpion”), and Max (Larry Pine), specializing in dramas, give their alternate comic or dramatic interpretations of Melinda's plight. This gives us three alternate versions of reality in the film, the conversation at the restaurant involving the two playwrights, and the two versions of Melinda's New York adventures. The film bounces back and forth between these three parallel story lines.
This is confusing to say the least, until I figured out that certain characters are specific to each of the three plots. Once you figure out which characters go with which plot line, you can quickly determine which storyline you are watching. This is important, because you can't tell by which story line is dramatic and which is comedic, because they are sometimes indistiguishable in that regard. For instnace, Cy says at one point, “He's despondent, he's desperate, he's suicidal. All the comic elements are in place.” Two different characters in the film attempt suicide. One suicide attempt is comic, the other, dramatic. For the record, Will Ferrell, of course, is in the comic plot line and does not appear in the dramatic plot line. The smooth-talking piano player Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor of “Dirty Pretty Things”), appears only in the dramatic plot line, not in the comic version of Melinda's story. Cy and Max only appear in the restaurant scenes.
The screenplay is prototypical Allen. It is all about love and death (nobody gets killed, but there are suicide attempts and people talk a lot about death), two of his favorite themes. There are also the usual marital infidelity incidents. There is also the usual raging insecurity infesting the film's self-centered New York creative intellectual characters. Some of the conversations sounded like they had been lifted verbatim from earlier Woody Allen movies like “Annie Hall” or “Manhatten.” One character, Susan (Amanda Peet of “Identity”), plays a movie director in one story line, while Melinda is looking for work in art galleries. These are familiar Allen character and story themes.
The acting is good, especially by Radha Mitchell, and the stories are intriguing. The film is not as funny, or as insightful, as the best Woody Allen films. The multiple story lines don't work very well. At the same time, it is refreshing to watch a smart, challenging movie like this, after seeing so many brain dead comedies churned out by Hollywood. Even though this isn't up to the standards of the best Woody Allen films, it is still worth watching. It rates a C+.
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