Saturday, March 26, 2005

Review - Melinda and Melinda

“A return to form for Woody Allen”. How many times have we heard that cliché uttered in recent years? How many times have Allen’s fans allowed themselves to believe that, this time, the great man was going to get it right? How many times have those fans been disappointed when Allen has produced another dire comedy? Too many times to mention. Nevertheless, the release of a new Woody Allen film is always highly anticipated and Melinda and Melinda has been receiving rave reviews prior to its release. Could this film mark Allen’s long-awaited return to form? Well, yes and no.
Certainly, Melinda and Melinda is leagues ahead of the insipid comedies Allen has been producing at such a ridiculous rate in recent years, although that’s not saying much. The film opens in a restaurant where two writers, one comic and one dramatic, are discussing the relative merits of their differing approaches to life. Another member of the party offers a hypothetical situation, a swanky dinner party which is interrupted when a distressed woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) turns up unannounced. From here, Allen spins two stories, one comic and one tragic, which share similarities but only really have the character of Melinda in common.

In the comic tale the party is being held by filmmaker Susan (Amanda Peet) and her failed actor husband Hobie (Will Ferrell) in order to impress one of their guests, a potential investor in Susan’s new movie. Melinda, a young woman who has just moved in downstairs, turns up after swallowing a number of sleeping pills. After helping her recover and letting her stay for dinner, Hobie has fallen madly in love with her while his wife is determined to set her up with a rich dentist.

The dramatic story also starts with a dinner party, held by Lee (Johnny Lee Miller) and Laurel (Chloe Sevigny). Lee is an actor hoping to impress a director and is unimpressed when one of Laurel’s chilhood friends arrives at the door (Melinda again). She is suicidal after she lost custody of her children and her relationship with her lover broke down. Laurel attempts a bit of matchmaking, but problems are caused when Melinda falls for pianist Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) because Laurel herself has fallen for the same man.

Allen has mixed comedy and tragedy before, notably in his best film Crimes and Misdemeanours, but this doesn’t really match up against his previous efforts. As the comic half of Allen’s film is so much better than the tragic half, the picture is fatally unbalanced. Allen’s comic tale is full of his trademark witty one-liners and offers some hilarious situations such as Ferrell’s farcical attempt to hear what’s going on in Melinda’s bedroom. Because it delivers a number of laughs this portion of the film can be forgiven for some contrived, predictable plotting and a trite climax, but it isn’t so easy to forgive such flaws in the dramatic section of the film. Despite some fine performances, this part of Melinda and Melinda is self-indulgent and dull and soon starts to drag the whole film down.

As with all of the films in which he doesn’t appear, Allen has enlisted an actor to be his onscreen representative. This poisoned chalice has previously gone to John Cusack (who did ok), Kenneth Branagh and Jason Biggs (who didn’t). This time it’s Will Ferrell’s turn and he handles it well. Despite occasionally appearing constrained by having to reproduce Allen’s mannerisms and speech patterns, he is genuinely funny and proves to be an excellent romantic lead. Chloe Sevigny and Chiwetel Ejiofor also impress, and share some fine scenes together, but the rest of the actors on show struggle to make an impact.

But this film really belongs to lead actress Radha Mitchell who gives two stunning performances. The former Neighbours actress has given strong displays in many films but has never really received the recognition she deserved for them. That should all change after Melinda and Melinda though. In the comic half of the film Mitchell is light and charming as the object of Ferrell‘s affection and she’s compelling in the tragic part, giving a convincing performance as the tortured heroine. It’s a remarkable dual display and it’s unfortunate that it may well be forgotten by the time next year’s Oscar season rolls around.

However, this is only a patchy effort from a once great filmmaker. The Allen of old would have played around with this conceit and explored the ways comedy and tragedy can blend and impact upon each other. Here, it seems sufficient to just run two parallel storylines with only the most tenuous connections.

He’s still churning them out at a rate of one per year (his latest, Match Point, has already been completed) and perhaps it would be better if he took a little time and fully devoted his attentions to a film befitting of his status. Melinda and Melinda is definitely a step in the right direction after Allen’s recent films, but we’re still waiting for that return to form.