Woody Allen has spent much of his career balancing the serious and the comic, whether in the same film or in separate pieces of the cinema. It’s generally considered that Allen’s less successful pictures are joke-free dramas like Interiors or Another Woman, although age has been quite kind to these films, especially in comparison to Woody’s last few comedy misfires – Anything Else, Hollywood Ending, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion – which coasted along on a variable collection of one-liners and not much else. Melinda and Melinda partially returns Woody to darker subject matter, and sees him embrace an intriguing concept – the same story told twice, as both a tragedy and a comedy.
Both stories centre around a young woman called Melinda (Radha Mitchell) who turns up unannounced at a swanky Manhattan dinner party. In the tragedy, she is an old friend of party host Laurel (Chloë Sevigny), who is married to boozing, cheating actor Lee (Jonny Lee Miller). This Melinda is a neurotic, self-loathing woman with two children she can no longer see and a dark secret in her past; Laurel and her friend Cassie (Brooke Smith) set about trying to get Melinda back on her feet. In the comic strand, Melinda is a sensitive but bubbly girl who moves into an apartment in the same building as would-be actor Hobie (Will Ferrell), whose wife Susan (Amanda Peet) is an ambitious film director. Their marriage is breaking down, and Hobie finds himself drawn to the fragile beauty down the hall.
Allen’s gimmick is to weave the two stories together, cutting from one to the other throughout, rather than presenting them separately. There’s a rather awkward framing device in which two writers (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine) debate the merits of comedy and tragedy – the events in the film being their illustrations of how the same premise can be taken in two directions. But to be honest, there really isn’t that much difference in tone between the two stories – one has more jokes and a happy ending, but its not like we’re leaping from Bergman to Airplane! here. Nevertheless, the narrative switching is surprisingly well done, and there is never any confusion as to which section of the film we are watching.
The film’s main problem is that neither part would have been strong enough to stand up on its own, and together makes for a rather unsatisfying whole. The drama in particular is flat in comparison with Allen’s previous dark explorations of tangled, failing relationships, in particular the brilliant, devastating Husbands and Wives. Tragic Melinda is an unlikable, humourless wreck, and the woes piled upon her – which reach a climax when she is betrayed by Laurel – seems perfunctory; indeed the scene in which she confesses to once killing a man is downright silly. The comic story is more successful, and while hardly classic Allen, is pretty enjoyable. Will Ferrell takes on the role previously played by John Cusack, Kenneth Branagh and Jason Biggs – namely, Woody Allen – and although he can’t fully escape from the intonations and delivery of the Woodster, he is warm and funny and the best moments all involve him. Particularly hilarious is the scene in which Hobie is faced with the prospect of a hunky, boastful dentist and part-time game hunter wooing Melinda – "Did you shoot the furniture we're sitting on?" he asks in an attempt to mock his love-rival.
As the only actor in both stories, Radha Mitchell is superb; she succeeds in making the two Melindas seem like different characters, and particularly shines as the comic version. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor makes a strong impression as the seductive composer who wins tragic Melinda’s heart, but while the likes of Sevigny, Lee Miller and Peet are fine, the stagy dialogue and a strange feeling of artificiality means they never truly inhabit their characters. Still, Allen does deserve credit for attempting to get out of the lazy comic rut he’s been in since 2000’s Small Time Crooks – he’s not found his old form yet, but it’s a step in the right direction.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.