Opposites Detract: Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda”
by Stacy Meichtry with responses from Jeanette Catsoulis and Michael Koresky
[ indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot ]
“Thank God for the French,” Woody Allen, in the role of a blind-stricken Hollywood director, once observed. If American audiences lacked the sophistication to appreciate the artistic vision of a blind man, at least Allen could count on the French to mistake his groping camerawork for genuine artistry. By casting the French box office as a deus ex machina in a film called “Hollywood Ending,” it seemed that Allen was almost daring European audiences to shun his film. That of course didn’t happen. At Cannes, where the film premiered, “Hollywood Ending” was mounted as an ex-patriotic homecoming to the aging auteur.
Two years later, the self-referential joke has a tinge of self-prophecy to it. With his latest release, “Melinda and Melinda,” Allen’s myopia knows few boundaries, and, unfortunately, there are no Hollywood twist endings to redeem the blinded artist. Instead, incoherence carries the day with multiple plot lines (and multiple endings), and we, the audience, get to choose our own adventure. In one story, Melinda (Radha Mitchell) is a suicidal, chain-smoking alcoholic with a mysterious past who reunites with college friends in a bid to get back on the wagon. In another, Melinda is a cuddly tart who instigates a romantic comedy after stumbling into an upper eastside dinner party in a pill-induced trance.
Told in alternating scenes, the narratives are intended to “comment” on one another and on the thin line that separates tragedy from comedy. If this stab at critical thinking seems a bit highfalutin, consider the source: a quartet of pretentious wine-sipping Manhattanites. To be more exact, Allen begins his schizophrenic tales at the proverbial campfire — a café table hosts a philosophical debate between storytelling intellectuals. Wallace Shawn‘s short, bald (and therefore comedic) storyteller spins a yarn attesting to his eternal optimism while his stolid counterpart pours his creative energies into a glass that is half-empty.
The musings of turtle-necked intellectuals have always held pride of place in Allen’s films — usually as a subject of ridicule. In films like “Manhattan,” Allen made clear that intellectualism wasn’t a virtue but an outgrowth of human vanity (think: Diane Keaton at MoMA pondering the “negative capability” of a steel cube). But in “Melinda and Melinda,” Allen doesn’t bother poking fun at pretension; he enshrines it. The intellectuals are the ones telling it like it is, and we are supposed to take their word for it.
The world, as they tell it, could easily be mistaken as a spoof of Allen’s earlier work. Enter Will Ferrell, whipping up a course of monkfish for a dinner party of Hollywood producers. Ferrell, in the role of an unemployed actor and cuckold, is not at his funniest in “Melinda and Melinda,” but neither is he wasted. In one scene he attempts to slime his way into bed with a former Playboy playmate, evoking his days as an SNL lounge lizard while keeping with the tone of Allen’s patented neuroticism. If Ferrell seems luminous, it’s merely the result of contrast. Indeed, he wanders through the film like an exotic bird in a poultry farm, lending his outbursts to a monotony of Central Park strolls, cocktail soirées, and weekend romps in the Hamptons.
Such upper-crust pastimes are by now recognized as part of Allen’s formula, which he typically tweaks by introducing an unhinged protagonist or two. Strangely, Ferrell’s cuckold is not given the space and time to evolve into a leading role of any kind. Instead, the wine-sipping quartet inform us, the Melinda of both tragedy and comedy will fulfill this role. She is to be the embodiment of chaos — a wild card whose quirks prompt a reshuffling of the social order. And when called upon to do so Mitchell can convulse with the best Allen heroes, the director included. But whether strung-out or insouciant, Mitchell’s performance is too book-smart. One senses that she’s approached Allen’s dialogue as a drama student approaches Shakespeare, preferring to imitate rather than invent. In other words, Allen’s own legacy seems to be working against him. Chloë Sevigny, for example, plays the role of a sexually frustrated socialite as if it had come with default settings. Acting aside, she and Mitchell certainly fit the mold of attractive, well-manicured uptowners, indicating that the director’s eyesight is as good as ever. If only the same could be said of his ear for dialogue.
[Stacy Meichtry is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot.]
By Jeanette Catsoulis
After four decades of filmmaking, Woody Allen continues to present a world alien to most Americans: sophisticated, intellectual, and upper-middle-class, its characters ensconced in lavish apartments and crumbling marriages. In that sense, “Melinda and Melinda” is simply a brusque rehash of creative and erotic disappointments already explored to perfection in “Husbands and Wives” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors” — the difference is that this time Allen has chosen structure, rather than content, as his starting point.
The opening is quintessential Allen — and a master class on how to use a framing device — as two playwrights argue over whether a particular story works best as comedy or tragedy. For Allen, of course, the forms are inseparable; and he makes his point with parallel storylines featuring the damaged Melinda (a double dose of Radha Mitchell) as she disrupts the life of an old school friend (Chloë Sevigny in the tragedy, Amanda Peet in the comedy). But the casting is less than successful: Allen surrogate Will Ferrell impersonates the director’s self-deprecating stammer and arm-waving angst with more energy than conviction, while Sevigny inadvisedly reprises the cool wariness she wielded so effectively in “demonlover.” And though Mitchell’s bifurcated performance is by far the most demanding, it’s also the most likely to make audiences long for Judy Davis.
Thank goodness for Brooke Smith: her breezily pragmatic best friend (the traditional Julie Kavner role) is the only character in the movie with visible coping skills. As split-level tragicomedy, “Melinda and Melinda” is technically impressive but emotionally arid. Melinda herself, in her black lace outfits and miasma of self-destructiveness, is never more than the walking symbol of Allen’s sex-and-death obsessions. And while that may be tragic, it’s never really funny.
[Jeannette Catsoulis, a freelance film writer based in Washington, DC, is a contributor to Reverse Shot who has also written for the Independent, DC One Magazine, and a number of independent weeklies.]
By Michael Koresky
An article much longer than this one is required to detail the remarkable position that Woody Allen holds for my specific generation of film lovers, so formative have his movies been to our generation’s aesthetic and ethical mindset. Whereas the governing spiritual advisory of Bergman, Fellini, et al, seems like an awkward, burdensome shadow to prior generations of cinephiles, to a great deal of us, raised during the American absorption of such narrative techniques, films such as “Stardust Memories,” “Another Woman,” and “Interiors” manage to transmogrify some of the masters’ conceits into surprisingly American, and therefore singular, cinematic expressions.
For us, it’s not the obvious influences that have become encroaching indicators of a lack of artistic propriety; it’s not the ambition we deride but the recent lack thereof. The unfortunate ability of his recent spate of comedies to be reduced to single sentence pitches — Hollywood filmmaker directs while literally blind; hypnotized detective unknowingly investigating his own burglaries; small-time hoods make more cash out of their cookie-store front than from the bank vault they’ve cracked next door — seems infinitely more problematic than that the plot thrust of “Sweet and Lowdown” might just recall that of “La Strada.”
It’s the dissolution of dramatic heft that has recently done in the tirelessly-prolific-to-a-fault filmmaker. This is why “Melinda and Melinda” is such a tough nut to crack: missed opportunity or doomed conceptual failure? Thanks to Radha Mitchell’s tremulous, over-exerted waif, a welcome throwback to many of Allen’s more complex heroines (Mia Farrow in “Alice,” Diane Keaton in “Manhattan Murder Mystery”), Allen’s storytelling seems more direct and fluid than it’s been in years. Yet the self-conscious genre-play in a sense betrays his protagonist’s every move, proving her to be at the whim of an alternately cruel and supplicant artist. In a sense, this is Allen’s version of Chuck Jones‘ “Duck Amuck,” albeit with a very real protagonist standing in for Daffy. Allen’s ivory-tower audience-alienation and annoying wine-clutching aesthetes notwithstanding, Mitchell brings with her a refreshing sense of conviction.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor of Film Comment.]