In the pretty much evenly split reviews of Woody Allen’s latest film, those who admire Melinda and Melinda tend to call it either Woody’s best film in ages or a return to form — suggesting that his last few films have been significantly wanting.
That’s not a bandwagon I choose to clamber aboard. While his last three films — The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Anything Else — were not on a par with Manhattan, Annie Hall or Stardust Memories, neither were they without merit. Few filmmakers have more than one Manhattan to their credit. In fact, few have even one.
But nearly all filmmakers have one era in their career that defines them in the public and critical mind, and it’s that era against which all their work is examined. With Allen, the period probably runs from 1975′s Love and Death (where he started moving from the strictly comedic to something more complex) through 1986′s Hannah and Her Sisters. And while that period contains his richest work, it also contains a notable misfire (the bargain-basement Bergman of Interiors), a one-joke premise stretched beyond its value (Zelig), and a thoroughly lightweight and disposable entry (Broadway Danny Rose).
Moreover, that period does not contain such key films as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Manhattan Murder Mystery, a fact that makes it risky and limiting to think exclusively in terms of Allen’s “great years.” The rush to lionize Melinda and Melinda at the expense of the films that directly preceded it is, I think, similarly mistaken.
Yes, this is Allen’s most complex and satisfying film in a long while — and possibly it’s his most cohesive serious work since Crimes and Misdemeanors. But the film is also so much part and parcel of Allen’s entire filmography that it’s both foolish and limiting to separate it from the bulk of his work in any way.
The framing story features two playwrights with different approaches. One (Wallace Shawn) writes popular comedies; the other (Larry Pine) specializes in less successful but prestigious tragedies. Each man envisions the story they are working on in terms of his own genre, recalling earlier Allen films (most notably Broadway Danny Rose, which uses a similar device).
As the stories of the two Melindas (both brilliantly played by Radha Mitchell, Phone Booth) unfold, we find traces of other films. In the comedic story, for example, there’s a variation on a typical Allen scene where his onscreen alter ego (in this case, played by Will Ferrell) wittily kvetches about a romantic rival’s display of conspicuous pretension, much as Allen did in Annie Hall. Characters in Melinda and Melinda encounter a pivotal moment at a film screening of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat — something that happens in Annie Hall (with The Sorrow and the Pity), Hannah and Her Sisters (with Duck Soup), and, in fact, forms the basis for his play and screenplay, Play It Again, Sam (from Casablanca).
Allen’s penchant for depicting suicide attempts — invariably by his female characters — dates all the way back to the improbably named Liz Bien (Paula Prentiss) in his very first script, What’s New, Pussycat?, and crops up as recently as Betty Ann Fitzgerald’s (Helen Hunt) attempt to throw herself out the window in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Whether such attempts come of as comic or serious depends on the circumstances. And in essence, this dichotomy is the point of the entire new film and its two stories.
Melinda and Melinda may tell the stories of the two Melindas in different terms, but in many ways the film really represents the two sides of Woody Allen. More importantly, it represents the fact that these two sides cannot actually be divided, since the comic side is also tragic, and vice versa. Allen slyly underscores this dynamic by having identical bits of dialogue crop up in both stories. Similarly, props and locations from one story sometimes appear in the other, suggesting that the stories are not all that different after all — and that both are the imaginings of the same creator.
As filmmaking, Melinda and Melinda is remarkably assured. Allen relies very little on his framing story to connect things, often cutting between the stories without a buffer. The fact that this is never confusing attests to Allen’s power as a filmmaker.
On the whole, it’s a better film than Anything Else. Despite its daring structure, however, Melinda and Melinda, while never falling to the level of the worst of Anything Else, similarly never scales the heights of the best of that uneven film. Conceptually, Melinda and Melinda is a much stronger work with a tighter script, though it does explore at least some of the same ground — notably the transition of the lovably kooky heroine into someone who’s far more troubled and troubling.
This is something Allen hinted at as early as the Charlotte Rampling character in Stardust Memories, but which reached its most unlovely expression in the Christina Ricci character in Anything Else. Here, one half of the story features much the same sort of character, in equally unlikable — but more sympathetic — terms, while the other half offers a character not entirely devoid of these traits. The portrayal here is better, thanks in no small part to the work of Mitchell, who is more capable of pulling it off than was Ricci.
The only problem with the film lies in the casting. While the brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things) is perfection itself in the tragic half of the film, Will Ferrell is somewhat less dazzling as Allen’s onscreen counterpart in the comedic half. As much as Jason Biggs was wanting in the role that would have gone to the Allen character in an earlier film, he was nearer the mark than Ferrell.
Ferrell does a sufficient job of erasing his own manic screen persona, but he’s just too big and gawky to capture the kind of nervous energy inherent in an Allen character. This doesn’t ruin the film, but it’s a distraction in a movie already close to being obviously self-conscious and threatens to mar an otherwise brilliant addition to Allen’s filmography. Rated PG-13 for adult situations involving sexuality, and some substance use.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke