The premise of Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda (Fox Searchlight) is ingenious and revelatory. It’s exactly the sort of idea that Allen should be wrestling with; it could even be a meditation on his own lifelong artistic contortions. In a bistro-set prologue, two playwrights (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine—standing in, perhaps, for Andre Gregory) argue about comedy and drama and which is the more vital form. Someone at the table tells a story of a woman who crashes a dinner party, and each writer decides to retell it according to his own firm aesthetic. The two versions, presented not in succession but breezily interwoven, revolve around the same character—an unstable woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell). One is a heavy drama, the other a frothy romantic comedy.
Why is this so perfect for Allen? Because for the last 25 years he has been zigzagging between comedy and drama, forsaking slapstick and parody (his genius) for imitation Bergman, Chekhov, and Fellini. He said that doing comedy meant sitting at the children’s table, and he wanted to eat with the grown-ups—which was a blow to those of us who think that comedy can be a great grown-up art form, too. But The Purple Rose of Cairo and Hannah and Her Sisters were seriocomic peaks, and Allen had a breakthrough as a “serious” dramatist with Husbands and Wives, made in the throes of his scandalous affair with his stepdaughter and his separation from Mia Farrow. At last, Allen seemed to be speaking in the voices of other people, not all of them like him (or characters in Bergman movies). But his last four efforts have been clunker comedies, desperate attempts to regain the good will of an audience that has either died or abandoned him. It’s a smart move to plumb the comic and tragic muses themselves—he’s going back to the well.
The grim news is that both muses are shriveled, sclerotic shells of their former selves. His drama half features young Manhattanites in absurdly huge apartments uttering bleak statements about their unfulfilled longings in an indifferent universe to a soundtrack of classical music. His comedy half features young Manhattanites in absurdly huge apartments jabbering sillier statements about their unfulfilled longings in an indifferent universe to a soundtrack of big-band jazz standards. One story ends sadly and makes you feel bad, one ends with an unlikely smooch and makes you feel good. And that’s it, folks: two lousy movies for the price of one.
The drama’s Melinda is a dangerously unstable, suicidal mother now cut off from her children. Acknowledging that she must “look like the wreck of the Hesperus,” she unceremoniously moves in with her class-conscious college friend, Laurel (Chloe Sevigny), and Laurel’s selfish, out-of-work actor husband, Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), destabilizing what has already been a bad arrangement. Melinda was due months earlier, which prompts Laurel to complain, “Lee had gotten your room in order.” Melinda thinks and says, “Can I speak openly?”
It doesn’t matter how openly she speaks, this still sounds like a Victorian translation of Ibsen. (“Hjalmar has your room in order, Eilert.” “May I speak openly, Gregers?”) The surprising thing is that Allen’s ear for comedy is mostly gone, too. In the for-laughs section, Will Ferrell plays Hobie, another out-of-work actor married to a budding film director (Amanda Peet). Hobie’s dialogue is like a third-generation tape of an old Woody Allen part, and Ferrell is the latest gifted actor to emasculate himself with a mincing, blurting Allen imitation.
Hobie is madly in love with Melinda, the adorably unstable downstairs neighbor with a string of failed relationships. He feels guilty, though—he says, “I want to touch her and then I’m at Nuremberg,” which gives you an idea of how contemporary Allen’s reference points are. Ferrell has a good farcical bit when he tries to eavesdrop on Melinda and a new lover, and his elation when he discovers his wife in bed with another man is at least a novel twist. But his infatuation with Melinda has no underpinnings: She’s just the least shallow (and prettiest) woman in his life, and his wife is leaving him behind anyway. There’s so little happening among the characters that you have time to notice all the wrong details, like those immense, fabulous New York apartments belonging to all those out-of-work actors and part-time teachers, and the parking spaces they ease into right in front of their brownstones. Allen might live in New York, but he’s a world away.
The Australian actress Radha Mitchell is the only reason to see the movie: She has an extraordinary open face and a way of mixing dreaminess with sudden bursts of lacerating emotion that recalls Jessica Lange. Chloe Sevigny is such a good, unaffected actress that she transcends her character’s shallowness and her lumpy dialogue. The only other fresh element is Chiwetel Ejiofor as a suave pianist and composer who stirs the souls and erotic longings of both Melinda and Laurel. He’s an operator, but his act is just about peerless.
Readers sometimes write to say, “Why do you talk about directors so personally? Why can’t you just focus on the work?” In Allen’s case, the connection is pretty fluid. In an interview last year with the English writer Fiona Morrow, Allen sniffed that he hadn’t seen American Pie when he cast its star, Jason Biggs, in his movie Anything Else. But he said he was sure it was dumb and full of toilet jokes and “not sophisticated at all.” This is the man who invented the Orgasmatron in Sleeper, who pitted himself against a giant breast in Everything You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Sex. When did he become such a humorless prig?
Woody Allen is a problem director. He’s frighteningly prolific: He writes a movie a year whether he has anything to share with world or not, and he has little problem getting top actors to submit to his disciplined production schedule. So much is streaming out of him—and yet, on the basis of his films, so little is coming in. His ideas about comedy and drama turn out to be banal—and he still can’t bring himself to regard comedy as anything but a diversion on the way to the grave, a necessary opiate.
This is what happens when a once-vital artist stews in his own juices for too long. Comedy, drama, it makes no difference. The well they both come from is stagnant.