For Woody Allen fans, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that Allen is free of the mutually embarrassing four-comedy deal with Dreamworks that brought us a slew of disappointments: Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, and Anything Else. The bad news is that Melinda and Melinda, his first film as a free man, is an anemic, leaden retread of his earlier work about the agonies of rich, attractive Wasps obsessed with infidelity and mortality. So maybe there’s not any good news, now that I think about it.
The movie opens on after-dinner conversation between four friends in a New York bistro. The subject is as pointless as it is highfalutin: Is life essentially comic or tragic? Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine are Sy and Max, successful playwrights who embody the two opposing views. Their friend Al (Neil Pepe) offers an anecdote (which we don’t hear) about an uninvited guest at a dinner party and asks if it’s material for a comedy or tragedy. Sy and Max each see it in terms of his particular form, and by turns they explain how they would interpret it. The rest of the film intercuts between their versions of the story, cross-pollinating various ideas and situations with different settings, casts, and tones.
Both stories open with a troubled woman stumbling into a Wasps’ nest and stirring up trouble. Tragic Melinda arrives at the enormous, elegant loft of unhappily married Laurel (Chloë Sevigny) and Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), who are trying to impress a director and win Lee the second lead in his upcoming play. An old friend of Laurel’s, this Melinda comes with a lot of baggage, literally and metaphorically, as she’s planning to stay in their spare room while she tries to rebuild her life after an extramarital affair and an ugly divorce.
Initially, comic Melinda is perhaps an even bigger mess. Distraught over a similar breakup and her subsequent lack of direction, she takes an overdose of sleeping pills and then seeks help from the strangers upstairs, pushy Susan (Amanda Peet) and anxious Hobie (Will Ferrell), who are sucking up to a real-estate tycoon who may help fund Susan’s movie. She’s titled it The Castration Sonata, in case we couldn’t grasp the dynamic of her marriage.
This is the level pretty much the entire film is on, in which everything is telegraphed to the audience and there are no surprises. The element that holds the movie together is the Australian actress Radha Mitchell, who plays Melinda in both tales. Mitchell turned heads in her first film, Love and Other Catastrophes, won critics over with her next, High Art, and has since had supporting roles in films as varied as Pitch Black, Phone Booth and Finding Neverland. This is her first lead, and it’s well earned. Playing a dual role, with two different casts and tones, Mitchell is a satisfying chameleon, even managing to be believable when delivering the overheated dialogue assigned to Tragic Melinda.
In the tragic scenario, Allen seems to be spoofing the conventions of “serious” (read: turgid) stage dramas, in which hyperliterate characters never use a two-syllable word if there’s a five-syllable synonym, and horrible new details of their backstories are revealed in each scene. The problem is that it’s not differentiated enough from the comic version. The comic characters use less pretentious diction, and their humiliations and revelations are taken less seriously, but the camerawork (by the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond) has the same autumnal look, and the scenes have the same deliberate pacing. There’s none of the heightening (or discarding) of reality, the stylization that makes a comedy zip along.
Allen’s stacked the deck in favor of the tragedy, whose characters are all more developed and whose subplots are richer and explored in greater depth. In the comic version, it’s only Will Ferrell’s Hobie we get to know (even Melinda is seen mostly through his eyes), which is a problem in itself. Ferrell has the bad luck to be Allen’s proxy; there’s usually one in Allen’s films in which he doesn’t act—John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway, Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, etc.—an actor whom Allen directs to perform exactly as he would in the same role. It’s a thankless task, and one that sits particularly badly with Ferrell, who seems uncomfortable in every scene, and it’s not just his character’s awkwardness. Ferrell is neither a brave enough actor to resist Allen’s instruction nor a resourceful enough one to make the neurosis his own. He flops around embarrassingly, like a fish on a pier, far out of his element.
Both stories center around Allen’s constant obsessions: terror of mortality and the consequent dissatisfaction with one’s life that, in Allen’s world, inevitably leads to infidelity. The married characters either cheat or obsess over their desire to do so, and they’re perfectly willing to destroy a friend’s relationship as well, if the friend’s partner is desirable. They’re completely self-involved, concerned with satisfying their own desires, looking to feel something that will distract them from the disappointments of their lives and from the inevitability of death.
There is a telling aspect, though, in Allen’s treatment of infidelity: A man’s urge to stray is treated as comic, while a woman’s is shown as tragic. Also, tragedy is about tortured artists brimming with integrity, while comedy is about sell-outs and poseurs. In Allen’s formulation, though, the only real difference is that tragedy asks you to empathize with pretentious, self-important people; comedy asks you to laugh at them.
Allen’s made it clear in both his recent films and in interviews that he doesn’t have much respect for the current moviegoing public, but essentially he’s blaming the victim, holding us responsible for the attitudes he faces when dealing with philistine studios and distributors. In his self-pity, he seems to feel he’s casting pearls before swine, when actually, due to his either ignoring or having lost the brilliant instincts that made him the sui generis comic mind he was, he’s just throwing out more slops. I can’t say how Allen’s best work would play if it opened in 2005, but I know firsthand that there’s a paying audience for films more challenging and intelligent than another Vin Diesel vehicle. We’re not all looking for mindless carnage, but almost no one is looking, either, for films about the frustration and self-pity of millionaire celebrity directors who ponder the mediocrity of the masses while applying their enviable talents to tired hackwork.
Melinda and Melinda is Allen’s love letter to his own pessimism, an anomic valentine that tells us life is about nothing, it doesn’t really matter whether you do the right thing or not, and we’ll all be in the abyss of death soon enough. He has his spokesman for comedy say, “We laugh because it masks our real terrors about mortality.” Allen can’t see that perhaps we laugh, instead, from the joy of being alive.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()