“Melinda and Melinda” is the thirty-third film Woody Allen has written and directed in thirty-nine years, and the first one since 1999’s underrated “Sweet and Lowdown” to not collapse completely under its author’s recently limited palette. Allen’s repertoire has become too predictable in the last four years with his DreamWorks-distributed movies, and his specialized audience has dwindled along with their relevance. As films like “Small Time Crooks” and “Hollywood Ending” were given wide release, his fan base became less dedicated, and the multiplex drew no new crowds to replace them. With “Melinda and Melinda,” a lightweight but enjoyable slice of thin-crust pie, he is finally poised to win some of those fans back.
The story of Melinda, who unexpectedly interrupts a Manhattan dinner party, is told in both comic and tragic styles over a dinner conversation with some writers (featuring Wallace Shawn, half of the infamous “My Dinner with Andre” duo). Rahda Mitchell plays Melinda in both versions, while the characters surrounding her are played by different actors in each story. Struggling married couple Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) and Lee (Jonny Lee Miller) reluctantly welcome the forlorn Melinda in the dramatic version, while ineffectual husband Hobie (Will Ferrell) falls for a luminous Melinda in the comic one. Ferrell is a particular standout in the typical Woody part, combining his own awkward comic sensibility with Allen’s customary neuroses.
In a movie with two tales to tell, one will inevitably work better than the other, and thanks in part to Mitchell and Ferrell’s natural chemistry, the comic story comes out on top. It may be well-worn territory for the filmmaker, but he’s traveling assuredly and comfortably across the terrain with new faces. It is a hoot to see the heavy set, 6-foot plus Ferrell scurry about where the miniscule director would have been cast twenty years ago, pining for Melinda, while married to a self-centered knockout like Amanda Peet.
By switching back and forth between the two versions, Allen showcases how a writer’s slight choices can make all the difference in the world. Certain people will have an innate inclination to look at events tragically, yet others will be forced to laugh at life’s absurdity. In the comic version, Hobie finds his wife in bed with another man and the surrounding circumstances give the scene an ironic and funny touch. In the dramatic version, Laurel and Lee’s slowly deteriorating marriage results in two inevitable affairs and a yelling match. Like his hilarious existentialist 1975 comedy “Love and Death,” Allen takes a Nietzschean approach to “Melinda and Melinda”, soliciting the viewer to embrace both sides of life with Dionysian spirit.
Allen’s characters must still deliver some uncomfortably outdated lines in a straight-faced manner. His actors are a little older and more believable, however, than Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci were in his last passé outing, “Anything Else,” where it seemed Allen had performed some kind of Frankenstein operation, placing Allen’s 70-something brain into Biggs’ 20-something body.
Although it is a bit rusty around the edges, “Melinda and Melinda” shows hints of Allen’s ability to turn imperfect people into sympathetic characters. As much as he is looking backwards with his setting and dialogue, Allen is looking forwards as well. He is a notoriously old-fashioned jazz/swing enthusiast, but in a remarkable departure for one scene, Allen actually employs the use of modern (gasp!) dance music. Additionally, if he continues to cast versatile funnymen like Ferrell and give them the freedom to make the roles their own, he may be able to escape more of his familiar routine altogether.