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?)


There's a popular belief that family movies are sappy, clichéd and boring. Hackneyed stories. Mediocre acting. Predictable, sentimental, workmanlike productions. Better suited to The Hallmark Channel than the big screen.

Then comes Millions, which shatters many of these myths. Set in England, Millions is a refreshing family movie about seven-year-old Damien Cunningham (Alex Etel ) and his older brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), who inexplicably come across a large bagful of money that appears to have dropped from the sky. And the question is, of course, what are they going to do with it. Damien, a religious boy who is prone to visions from dead saints, wants to give it to the poor. He thinks it came from God. Everyone else has more worldly perspectives and agendas. A sense of urgency is driven by the impending conversion to the Euro, when all 200,000 odd pounds will become worthless.

A further emotional undercurrent is that the boys' mother recently passed away, causing a move to a new house and new neighborhood. Dad and sons deal with the loss in their own ways, but their grief is never far from the surface.

Danny Boyle is known for directing much darker films, like Trainspotting and 28 Days Later. But in Millions he melds his penchant for creepiness with a fanciful whimsy reminiscent of Amelie. (I would have preferred a steadier hand at the stern, as the imaginative filmmaking of the first half of the movie succumbs to a more traditional style as the story progresses.) Nevertheless, the result is a family movie that feels rare and fresh, complete with rich cinematography and a provocative score.

Alex Etel is extraordinary as Damien—maybe the best child performance I have seen since Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider. But Boyle gets terrific performances out of everyone—including McGibbon as brother Anthony and James Nesbitt as their father. Nothing over the top. No caricatures.

Millions does have its share of moralizing, and Boyle makes clear that money can have a powerful and corrupting effect on people. (OK, nothing earth-shattering here.) But there are others, like Damien, who rise above the worldly temptations, and see clearly that money can be a tool for good or evil. Along the way, Damian gets visionary insight and assistance from some helpful, if not iconoclastic Catholic saints, including cigarette-smoking Clare of Assis, St. Peter and a slightly profane St. Francis. My favorite line from the movie, from one of the heavenly visitors: "The money makes it harder to see what's what."

Even though Millions is rated PG there are a few provocative moments that left me scratching my head. (It's almost as if the director didn't want to be accused of making a kids movie.) There are several ads featuring an old man with an amply endowed younger woman with plenty of cleavage. There's also a scene where Anthony introduces Damien to a women's underwear site on the Internet, with extreme close-ups and candid dialogue. Some might find this real to life, but it will certainly make other families uncomfortable.

It's a shame this movie didn't do better at the box office— well under $10 million. I suggest you pick up the DVD.