14 March, 2005

Review: Melinda and Melinda

I'm sorry, but the best thing I can say about this film is that it's the most endurable Woody Allen film for a long time. Melinda and Melinda tries to illustrate a purely intellectual exercise, proposed as over dinner conversation by framing device folk, that a story may be told different ways, tragically or comically. Two immediate problems arise, 1) these are both stories being told, as such we have no reason to invest anything more than curiosity in the characters and their fate, 2) it's not really the same story, it's two similar stories based on the dinnertable source anecdote (which is never revealed), any hope that a clever parallel juxtapositions will occur are dispelled at the outset as the only common factor between both tales is the actress playing Melinda (Radha Mitchell).

The two halves of the film share various motif's and details, but often applied to different parallel characters. Two different potential suicides aver "I'm going out the window" before the attempt, echoing each other and the suicidal philosopher in "Crimes and Misdemeanors". As the stories are otherwise dissimilar there is very little of the frisson that might be generated from guessing how a particular tragic development would be handled comically or vice versa as it never comes to that.

On the upside it hums along entertainingly if pointlessly enough. There are moments of both un- and intentional humour in the tragic version. The tragic Melinda is given jarringly arch dialogue, referring to her dishevelled appearance at a party like "the wreck of the Hesperus", she is given to dwelling on the names of people, her previous affair is with a man with a "romantic sounding" name, the infidelity discovered by a detective with "the unlikely name of Crutchwood", she repeatedly states she's taken her mother's maiden name, "it's French." At the worst, tragic Melinda is a poorly conceived update on Blanche Du Bois.

Much of the "comedy" in the comic version of the tale is of the cringingly stale neurotic Woody Allen shtick of yore. Will Farrell is given the yutz who lusts unaccountably and uncontrollably over a woman in a neighboring flat. He even adopts the Allen cadence. The lamest, literally, running gag is that as an actor Farrell plays every role, Willy Loman through Lear, with "a limp."

There are still some good one-liners, most successfully delivered by characters not sounding like Allen. The best uttered by Amanda Peet to her lackadaisacal actor husband, Farrell, "of course we communicate, now can we please stop talking about it." Some moments of gently observant humour seep their way into the tragic story, at these ephemeral moments the film almost works, or at least suggests that perhaps Allen could make a more genuine movie if he had some other material to work with.

On their own terms neither half hangs together well enough. Allen doing tragedy was better when he was trying to ape Bergman or O'Neill (Interiors, September, Alice), rather than Tennessee Williams (OK, there is a bit of "Glass Menagerie" in "Floating Lightbulb" but he hasn't filmed that one). The comedy half turns on the sort of Allen character agonizing over desires for adultery and unrequited love that magically turns out well because, well because it does...

Like many "fans" of Allen's work, I approached this movie with the dread reserved for his output over the last two decades. While he is clearly still talented, he has trod various thematic and comic ideas into the ground. Someone should stop funding him, or at least get him to collaborate, or try working with someone else's material (Allen + Charlie Kaufmann marriage in heaven or hell? Discuss.) I enjoyed this film more than any of his other films since "Bullets Over Broadway". Sadly, this is not saying much.



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