Woody Warms Up
Someway, Somehow, Melinda and Melinda Doesnít Suck
These days, if critics are trashing a new Woody Allen filmóand they generally areóitís more than understandable. Mired in the worst (one might even say only) creative slump of his career (see Hollywood Ending for confirmation, or better yet, donít), Allenís output early this millennium has been unforgivably dull and interchangeable: dreary stabs at romantic comedy stocked equally with young, hip actors plucked from recent, lauded films Allen probably hasnít seen and Z-grade gags too stale even for comedians still working the Catskills circuit. Heís proved himself so old and out of touch that thereís absolutely no reason to think a new Allen film titled Melinda and Melinda starring Radha Mitchell, Will Ferrell, and ChloŽ Sevigny would break free from this mold in the slightest.
Thing isóeven if review after review written on autopilot hasnít picked up on this yetósomeway, somehow, Melinda and Melinda doesnít suck. In fact, bearing in mind the diminished expectations with which one enters a Woody Allen film these days, itís actually kind of good.
Melindaís opening device doesnít inspire much confidence. Dimly recalling Allenís 1984 Broadway Danny Rose, a group of friends (including Allen regular Wallace Shawn) filter a story theyíve just heard through typically stilted late-Allen dialogue. The storyís not a happy one, but the friends quickly notice how small differences in perspective and minor tweaks of plot points can transform the same narrative from tragedy into comedy. From here, their musings bring to life two alternating stories about its titular character, played in both by Mitchell.
In the first, Melinda shows up unexpectedly at a dinner party thrown by her old friend Laurel (Sevigny) and Laurelís husband, actor Lee (Jonny Lee Miller). Alcoholic, anorexic, and admittedly suicidal, Melindaís life appears at first to regain some balance as she crashes at Laurel and Leeís pad and falls for classical composer Ellis (Dirty Pretty Thingís Chiwetel Ejiofor). However, the escalating implosion of Lee and Laurelís relationship threatens Melindaís nascent stability. Our second scenario reconfigures Melinda as downstairs neighbor to indie-film director Susan (Amanda Peet) and nebbishy househusband Hobie (Ferrell). Melinda announces her presence here, again during a dinner party, with a loudly botched suicide attempt. Over the following weeks, Susan takes on finding Melinda a boyfriend as her pet projectómuch to the chagrin of Hobie, whoís smitten with Melinda.
Both parallel narrative strands start off shakyóat first, one has to really strain to recall which is supposed to deliver laughs and which tearsóbut, miracle of miracles, they both improve over time. In so doing, they begin to recall that genre Allen perfected in the late í70s through the í80s and in which most of his best films operate: namely, neurotic dramedies examining the infidelities and neuroses of high-society Manhattanites.
Thereís no mistaking Melinda for Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), however. For starters, Allen just isnít that funny any0more. Thereís certainly more humor here than in Allenís last few (all of which, unlike Melinda, were ironically intended as full-on comedies), but thatís mostly due to Ferrell, who strikes a fine balance between aping Woody and doing his own thing. A few laughs come from scripted traits common to all Allenís leading menóhatred of beaches, bugs, and braggartsóbut just as many spring from Ferrellís fluid gift for generating mirth with facial mannerisms, gestures, and inflections of speech, even when heís not necessarily delivering a punch line. Donít expect belly laughs, but this welcome infusion of new blood produces more chuckles than any Allen film since 1999ís Sweet and Lowdown.
Allen still has problems writing dialogue that feels believable for his characters, as he has since at least the early í90s. The cultural references that dribble from Lee and Laurelís lips, for instance, generally sound more like those of Allen himself than those of trendy thirtysomething Manhattanites. Heís also less of an actorís director than in decades pastóas in his last few films, each cast member seems to have chosen his or her own tone with little guidance. Still, Melinda abounds with winning performances, especially from Mitchell, Ferrell, and Ejiofor. Unfortunately, the fact that Ejiofor is a black man with a speaking part in a Woody Allen film will generate as much buzz as his actual performance, but thatís a whole nother can of worms.
Longtime fans take note: Even if Woody never makes another five-star movie meriting innumerable viewings, at least heís turned in, for the first time in half a decade, a three-star movie worth sitting through once. Sigh a breath of relief, credit crucial assists to Ferrell and several cast mates, and keep your fingers crossed for another respectable effort about this time next year.