Thursday, February 23, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.21: Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 2004’s Melinda and Melinda.
Grade: 21 (D+)
Well, let’s look at the bright side. After the staggering awfulness of Anything Else, there was nowhere to go but up, right? Right. But how far up does Melinda and Melinda go? Not far enough. The film’s central thesis, a question of whether life is inherently tragic or comedic, is interesting enough, but it’s the execution that counts, and the film is ultimately a failure. The film centers around a dinner at a restaurant where one member of the party tells the group what happened to his friend and asks whether the story is tragic or comedic. Larry Pine argues that the story is tragic. Wallace Shawn argues that the story is tragic. The framework recalls both My Dinner with Andre (which starred Shawn) and Allen’s own Broadway Danny Rose (in which comedians tell their stories about Allen’s Danny Rose). The difference is that where the previous films’ characters had interesting anecdotes, Melinda and Melinda’s central stories are so trite it’s a wonder they merited discussion in the first place.
In the tragic half, Melinda (Radha Mitchell) walks into a dinner party hosted by her friend Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) and her struggling actor husband Lee (Johnny Lee Miller). Melinda has had a bad run of luck- she’s been addicted to pills, her marriage ended, she attempted suicide, and now her ex-husband refuses to allow her to see her kids. Laurel tries to set Melinda up with men; nothing works until Melinda falls for Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a classical musician and composer. Things are looking up…until Laurel falls for Ellis herself.
In the comedic half, Melinda (Mitchell again) is an upstairs neighbor to struggling filmmaker Susan (Amanda Peet) and her struggling actor husband Hobie (Will Ferrell). Melinda has had the same luck she had in the tragic story, but now there’s a new problem- Hobie, whose marriage to Susan is faltering, has fallen for Melinda.
Woody Allen often juggled comedy and tragedy effortlessly in the past (Crimes and Misdemeanors), but he’s on shaky ground here. The film cuts back and forth between the dramatic and comedic with none of the verve of Crimes and Misdemeanors or Hannah and Her Sisters. Neither story has much weight or any characters worth caring about. Yet again Allen has assembled a great cast (Miller of Trainspotting fame, Sevigny of Boys Don’t Cry) and has given them nothing interesting to do. Mitchell proved herself a talented actress in High Art, but she’s  lost at sea in both parts- the dramatic half gives her overwritten monologues to hinge a character on rather than action. The comedic half is a bit better, but it just isn’t funny.  Allen originally wanted Winona Ryder in the role before her shoplifting incident made her uninsurable; it’s hard to imagine Ryder would have fared any better in these terrible roles.
The tragic half is easily the worse of the two tales- it’s the worst drama Allen ever directed (well, I haven’t seen September, but I’ll stand by it otherwise). The characters yell overwritten dialogue (“I’m running out of obsequies banter”) and generally act like they know they’re in Woody Allen film. Of all the film’s crimes, perhaps the greatest is Ejiofor’s character. Allen isn’t exactly known for writing great roles for African-Americans…or any roles, for that matter. Melinda and Melinda finally gives a major role to a black actor, but the character is the same kind of bland love interest Allen wrote for other bad dramatic movies (see: Gene Hackman in Another Woman). There’s no life to him whatsoever- when he tells Mitchell that he grew up in Harlem, the first thought through anyone’s head is “No, no you did not. Take that back, you liar.” The character’s name is “Ellis Moonsong”, for god’s sake. It shows that perhaps Allen doesn’t hang around many black people. The dramatic half also showcases Allen’s penchant for explaining everything to the audience at all turns of the movie- when the story finally wraps up, Sevigny explains Mitchell’s plight one last time just in case you missed it.
The comedic half is a bit better in that it’s another mediocre comedy in the Hollywood Ending vein. Woody still overwrites (the “obsequies banter” line comes up again), none of the one-liners are very good, and Peet’s character sometimes leans towards the awful female roles Allen wrote in the early-2000s (her upcoming film is called The Castration Sonata). The comedic half has one surprising asset: Will Ferrell, an unlikely Woody Allen surrogate. It’s an odd choice casting him as the Woody Allen character (Ferrell is Jewish like Natalie Wood is Puerto Rican), but he’s the one energetic performer in a film that seems bent on not giving anyone anything to do. The role might have been even better with Robert Downey, Jr. playing the character (he was Allen’s choice until his drug problems made insuring him impossible), but Ferrell supplies the film’s sole bright spot.
It’s hardly enough to save the movie, though. Melinda and Melinda is a cross between a godawful, pretentious drama (Grade: D-) and a mediocre comedy (Grade: C) where it’s actually a relief to go back to the mostly boring comedy rather than the gobsmacking awfulness that calls itself “tragedy”. The film comes to its logical (read: obvious) conclusion when a friend tells the two debaters that life is neither inherently tragic nor comedic. By this point, it looked like Woody Allen was lost. He had given the world five duds in a row, and his last good film came after two more awful misogyny-fests. Melinda and Melinda was completed in 2004 only to be released in early 2005. What kept fans hopes up, however, was news of a new film from the old master debuting to raves at the Cannes film festival. That film, released stateside in late 2005, was Match Point.

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