Melinda and Melinda
February 4, 2006
Starring: Wallace Shawn, Neil Pepe, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Larry Pine, Radha Mitchell, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Sevigny, Matt Servitto, Zak Orth, Will Ferrell, Amanda Peet, Shalom Harlow, Steve Carell, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, ,
Since the start of the ‘90s, Woody Allen’s films have been hit and miss affairs with audiences and critics alike. And yet, he continues to average a film a year, keeping his head down and plugging away, so that it almost becomes a right of passage for actors: have you done a Woody Allen film yet? This time out with Melinda and Melinda (2005), Allen tries to mix things up a bit a la Sliding Doors (1998) by telling a woman’s story twice, once as a comedy and again as a drama.
Two couples are dining out during a rainy night. The two men are writers (Pine and Shawn) who argue over what resonates more with audiences: comedies or tragedies. So, one of them presents a scenario: a woman named Melinda (Mitchell) arrives unannounced at a dinner party and this where the story deviates into either a comedy or a tragedy. The dramatic storyline features Melinda arriving in the middle of a dinner party hosted by friends (Miller and Sevigny) of hers while the other story has Melinda as a neighbour who intrudes on a dinner party hosted by a filmmaker (Peet) and her out-of-work actor husband (Ferrell). Allen then proceeds to crosscut between each story and explore how each one plays out.
For fans of Allen’s films watching them is like visiting an old friend. You pretty much know what you’re going to get: the plain opening credits always done in the same font with big band or jazz music playing and the cast presented in alphabetical order. Allen continues to mine the specific social strata that he knows best: white, affluent, Upper East Side New York City intellectuals. With Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), he was able to blend comedy and drama effortlessly. For over a decade now the heart has been missing from his movies and with Melinda and Melinda he seems to have found it again. The stories feel more natural and his dialogue flows with an ease and rhythm that has been absent for some time.
This movie is not quite a full-on, return to form for Allen. The dramatic story isn’t as interesting as the comedic one as none of the characters are all that engaging or relatable – not that is essential but it pales in comparison to the much warmer and interesting comedic story. It doesn’t hurt that the comedic story features a surprisingly restrained Will Ferrell as this film’s Woody Allen surrogate. He nails the neurotic, uptight intellectual who proves to be a better cook then an actor (despite his claims to a successful turn as Henry Higgins in a college version Pygmalion because he added a limp to the character). Ferrell successfully tones down his usual manic schtick for a more fully realized character that makes one wonder if this is his first attempt at making the jump into more substantial fare like Robin Williams and Jim Carrey did before him. It certainly helps that he’s got a substantial screenplay to work with and he looks quite comfortable in this role, handling Allen’s distinctive cadences and rhythms with ease.
In recent years, Allen has been making one comedy after another and Melinda and Melinda hints at a possible change of pace for the veteran filmmaker as he balances comedy with an equal helping of drama. Indeed, his next film, Match Point (2005), is rumoured to be a more serious affair in the vein of Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Melinda and Melinda recaptures some of the emotional glow that has been missing from Allen’s films for years. It is warm, romantic and charming with excellent casting. It’s almost as if the director has struck up a new courtship with his favourite leading lady, New York City.