Saturday, November 05, 2005

Melinda and Melinda

There are two kinds of people in this world—those that like Woody Allen movies, and those that don’t. I’ve been a big fan since I first saw Sleeper as a kid. But judging by his box office results of the past 20 years, I’m in the movie-going minority. Yet somehow Allen keeps making movies with astounding regularity (one a year since Annie Hall in 1977). And I must admit that I pretty much like all of them.

Melinda and Melinda is a little different and some critics are saying it’s his best work in years. Like other Woody films, it’s set in New York and is quickly immersed in the angst of modern urban life and love. In this case, there are two interlaced stories—two takes on a single idea, both starring Radha Mitchell as Melinda trying to put her broken life back together. The notion arises from a restaurant conversation where a comedic playwright (funny-faced charmer Wallace Shawn, ala My Dinner with Andre) and a dramatic writer (Larry Pine) debate whether life is essentially comic or tragic.

Both stories begin with Melinda crashing a dinner party. In the comedy, Will Ferrell plays Hobie, an actor surviving with commercial roles and struggling in his marriage to aspiring director Susan (Amanda Peet). Farrell’s character is the same one Woody Allen has played for 30 years—the goofy-looking neurotic, intellectual, self-deprecating New Yorker who somehow manages to get the beautiful girl (Melinda) to fall in love with him. You can clearly recognize these are Woody’s lines, but Ferrell manages to make them believably his own. It is easy to smile while Melinda battles the challenges in her life as she searches for love and happiness, and ultimately finds them in the hopeless but lovable Hobie.

In the tragedy, Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) and Melinda were high-school pals and now, years later, both fall in love with Ellis, a handsome, sensitive and romantic pianist (Chiwetel Ejiofor). This is further complicated by the fact that Laurel’s marriage to her two-timing professor husband is breaking up, while alcoholic, chain-smoking Melinda is barely managing to hold her disastrous life together.

There is so much jumping between the two stories that it’s sometimes hard to keep track. But that’s what makes the film work, because we begin to realize that it doesn’t really matter. Allen’s dualism is both tragic and comic, competing partners in the amusing drama that we call life.

(By the way, like Bewitched, which was released on DVD the same day, Steve Carrell is also in this movie, along with Will Ferrell. What are the chances?)


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