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Melinda and Melinda

Woody Allen is back in fighting form with Melinda and Melinda, a tricky proposition that is two films linked by one remarkable actress — the Aussie beauty Radha Mitchell, last seen as Johnny Depp’s frigid wife in Finding Neverland — in the dual roles of Melinda and Melinda.

Huh? Wha? Listen up. Two playwrights (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine) are arguing about whether life is basically comic or tragic. So they take an idea — a blonde named Melinda bursts into the Manhattan apartment of married pals who are having a dinner party — and imagine it as low farce and high drama. Woody cuts back and forth between the two stories. He’s not subtle about it; you may feel jerked around. But stick with the program — it’s a bracing ride and much preferable to his coddling films of the past few years.

In the comic story, Melinda is a single neighbor who interrupts the bumbling, out-of-work actor Hobie (Will Ferrell) and his indie-filmmaking wife, Susan (Amanda Peet). Susan, whose new feminist flick is menacingly titled The Castration Sonata, is determined to find the right guy for Melinda, until Hobie decides he’s it.

In the tragic version, Melinda is a nutso school chum of wealthy Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) and her cheating, out-of-work actor husband, Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), who are entertaining their pal Cassie (a sharply hilarious Brooke Smith) when Melinda comes in with a tale of woe: Her doctor husband has left her — she cheated on him — and won custody of their kids, which has led to thoughts of suicide (hers) and murder (his).

Got that? Wait. You may have noticed there’s no part for Woody.

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He has either bowed to criticism about chasing young babes onscreen or realized that since he is now pushing seventy, he can’t exactly blend in a story about thirtysomething Manhattanites.

Enter Ferrell, 37, to stammer, stumble and sweat with sexual panic just like Woody did in his films of the 1970s. Other actors have tried this before, with results that range from mixed (John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway) to disastrous (Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity). Ferrell mimics Woody better than anyone. When Susan sets up Melinda with a hunky dentist (Josh Brolin), a jealous Hobie argues that she just divorced a doctor: “A dentist is the same thing, only oral.” Ferrell delivers the line with all the Woody trimmings. But after Old School, Elf, Anchorman and seven years on Saturday Night Live, Ferrell should have been trusted to put his own spin on the role. The scene in which Hobie finds his wife in bed with a stud and gets giddy, because he’s now clear to woo Melinda, finally lets Ferrell be Ferrell, and it’s a hoot.

The mood grows tense when an unhinged Melinda hooks up with Ellis (a smooth Chiwetel Ejiofar), a jazz pianist from Harlem who dumps her for sweet Laurel (Sevigny lends a touching gravity to the role). Threats and accusations create a film-noir mood that Woody enhances with the help of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Mitchell works wonders as the deranged Melinda embraces her dark side. She’s almost as dangerous as the Bush supporter (Vinessa Shaw) Hobie dates without knowing she’s on the verge of a meltdown.

And so it goes, mirth and mayhem set to the mellow tones of Duke Ellington and the driving pulsations of Stravinsky. That’s Woody’s world: Manhattan in a time warp he created in the Seventies and re-creates here with newer faces. With Melinda and Melinda he’s not just going through the motions. He’s saying the game isn’t over before you laugh till it hurts.

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