Josh Bell

It seems like every movie Woody Allen has made for the last decade has its share of critics declaring it a return to form and the writer-director's best in years. Allen's newest, Melinda and Melinda, is no exception, with its own group of ardent supporters claiming its clever mix of comedy and drama is a pleasant and welcome throwback to Allen classics of yore.

Well, not quite. Melinda and Melinda might be less torturous than some of Allen's recent work, and does have a sort of breezy insouciance that's reminiscent of his classic films like Manhattan and Annie Hall. But it comes off like a copy of a copy of a Woody Allen movie: Occasionally you can make out some of the quality of the original, but mostly it's just vaguely recognizable noise.

Allen's conceit for Melinda and Melinda has potential: He opens on an argument between two playwrights, one of whom claims that life is inherently comedic; the other, that life is inherently tragic. To prove their respective points, they each spin a tale of an unexpected guest crashing a dinner party. In the tragic tale, that guest is Melinda (Radha Mitchell), an old college friend of Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) who's come to New York to escape a violent past and a stay in a mental institution. In the comedic story, the guest is also Melinda (Mitchell again), although this time she's the flighty downstairs neighbor of filmmaker Susan (Amanda Peet) and actor Hobie (Will Ferrell, in the requisite Allen stand-in role).

The two stories unfold simultaneously, with tragic Melinda tragically popping pills and tragically falling in love with a pianist (Chiwetel Ejiofor), while comedic Melinda encounters comedic obstacles in getting together with the comedically neurotic Hobie. The comedy, with its jaunty jazz score and deft performance from Ferrell, is the better of the two, and has more of the old Allen spark. The tragedy is oppressive and turgid, and tragic Melinda is too self-destructive to care about.

At this point, Allen's Manhattan is such a fantasy world that his characters might as well live in Disneyland, and his cultural references so dated that he might as well be making a period piece. Within his hermetically sealed world, Allen comes off only as out of touch and solipsistic, repeating the same once-fresh ideas over and over until they lose all meaning.

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