It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when Woody Allen was mentioned in the same breath as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. For much of the ’70s these directors were the holy trinity of American film — filmmakers who proved that Hollywood valued artistic expression as much as box office receipts. Then came Star Wars, Steven Spielberg and Titanic, and the Axis Of Ego tilted toward filmmakers who understood the value of merchandising, sequels and corporate synergy.
Coppola retired to his vineyards and started a cottage industry based on epicurean and literary pretensions. Scorsese became the unappreciated Dalai Lama of film auteurship, forever chasing his Oscar like a Holy Grail of recognition. And, for a brief time, Allen became a media sideshow attraction as his personal life was dragged through the tabloids.
Still, year after year, Woody keeps the films coming, whether we notice or not. Oh, sure, there have been a few bright moments. Bullets Over Broadway and Sweet and Low Down made minor splashes, but nothing approached the promise of his early career. Allen’s films over the last 25 years have been a downward spiral of mediocrity and, on occasion, hubris. His latest film, Melinda and Melinda, does nothing to change that trajectory.
The premise is actually quite promising: Two playwrights examine how a single set of circumstances can be depicted as either comedy or tragedy. Using the same opening event — a young woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) crashes a dinner party — each writer presents their take on the story, and we bounce back and forth between the dual scenarios.
Tragic Melinda is a cautionary tale about infidelity. Neurotic, chain-smoking and high-strung, she shows up at the home of her childhood friend Laurel (Chloë Sevigny) after cheating on her husband, killing her philandering lover and losing custody of her children. Determined to get back on her feet and find romance, she enters into a relationship with a charming black musician (Chiwetel Ejiofor) only to be betrayed by those closest to her. It’s a maudlin affair that plays like a second-rate Neil LaBute play.
Meanwhile, comic Melinda stumbles into the lives of her neighbors, aspiring actor Hobie (Will Ferrell) and feminist filmmaker Susan (Amanda Peet). Cute and bubbly in that romantic comedy sort of way, Melinda inspires discontented Hobie to fall head over heels in love with her. Wacky complications ensue. Ferrell is Woody’s stand-in here, desperately fluttering his hands and stammering Allen’s trademark self-deprecating remarks. He does a perfectly adequate job, but it’s a poor use of Ferrell’s formidable talents.
In both segments Radha Mitchell proves herself as a talented actress, though Woody does her no favors. Layering on one neurosis after another, he undermines her performances, mistaking nervous ticks for character development.
What’s most striking about both these stories is how poorly executed they are. In the tragedy, Melinda is far too unsympathetic, ultimately eliciting annoyance instead of compassion. The comedy, on the other hand, simply isn’t that funny. Ferrell has a few good moments but the story and jokes are tired retreads of Allen’s usual schtick.
Melinda and Melinda should have been Woody Allen’s moment to shine again. It tackles the question he’s been wresting with in his films for the last 30 years: Is the essence of life comic or tragic? The funny (or tragic) thing is, he seems no closer to an answer.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.