Melinda and Melinda: Woody Allen’s Misfire, Starring Radha Mitchell, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Will Ferrell, Jonny Lee Miller, Amanda Peet, and Chloe Sevigny

Despite early positive reports from the San Sebastian Film Festival, where “Melinda and Melinda” received its world premiere, Woody’s Allen’s new serio-comedy is ultimately a disappointment. Admittedly, “Melinda and Melinda” is not as bad, flat, or embarrassing as Allen’s previous comedies, but it’s certainly not a return to form, if by that is meant vintage Allen films like “Manhattan” or “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

For critics of my generation, going to a Woody Allen picture these days is a painful experience. When was the last good Allen comedy? “Bullets Over Broadway” in 1994? There were good scenes in “Sweet and Lowdown,” in which the acting was superb, and you could have some hearty laughs in “Small-Time Crooks,” but both were made four five years ago.

At what point do we declare that a gifted and prolific writer-director of Allen’s stature has dried up creatively, with little new to say thematically or visually. Allen himself knows, as he had said repeatedly in interviews, that he had lost his American audience. Which is the reason why, contrary to his long-held principles, he now travels the global festival road, introducing his films and even meeting the press with a smile.

It’s no coincidence that “Hollywood Ending” premiered in Cannes, “Anything Else” in Venice, and “Melinda and Melinda” in San Sebastian, for these three countries, France, Italy, and Spain, respectively, are the only markets where Allen’s pictures are commercially viable.

However, rather mysteriously, new actors are eager to work with Allen, perhaps due to his reputation as a major auteur of the 1970s and 1980s. In recent films, he has worked with Debra Messing in “Hollywood Ending,” Christina Ricci and Jason Biggs in “Anything Goes.” “Melinda and Melinda” is meant to give reign to both the funny and serious talents of such young hot actors as Radha Mitchell, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Will Ferrell, Jonny Lee Miller, Amanda Peet, and Chloe Sevigny.

In theory, “Melinda and Melinda” sounds good, for it combines and contrasts romantic comedy and serious drama in a uniquely Allen’s way. As a character in the movie puts it, “He’s despondent, he’s desperate, he’s suicidal. All the comic elements are in place.”

Set in Manhattan, specifically Upper East Side, Allen’s favorite locale, it chronicles the fables and foibles of upscale Manhattanites, most of whom are in showbiz as actors and directors, though there’s also a dentist, who’s sexier than most of them.

Allen is certainly an auteur, but there’s a clear line between having recurring motifs, themes and styles, and sheer repetition, borrowing, and rehashing from previous films, as has been the case with Allen’s recent output. All the usual Allen motifs–the fragility of love, marital infidelity, sophisticated romance, the inability to communicate, the randomness of romantic encounters, the unpredictability of passion–are present in the new film.

Allen claims that he has more ideas for movies than he will ever have time to put on film. Perhaps But how good are his ideas At the risk of trivializing “Melinda and Melinda,” I’ll say that while it’s not a high-concept picture, it’s certainly a highly conceptual one. In this film, Allen again “explores” his most beloved terrain: personal struggles with morality, frail and insecure identities, real and fake intimacy, jealousy and obsession, the vagaries of romantic love.

The new element in “Melinda and Melinda” is introduced in the opening scene, in which four sophisticated New Yorkers enjoy a dinner on a rainy night. An anecdote provokes a discussion between writers Max (Larry Pine) and Sy (Wallace Shawn) about the dual nature of human drama, symbolized by the comedy-tragedy mask of theater.

The idea that from one person’s particular perspective a story can be funny, while from another person’s perspective it can be sad, is not new in film or literature. Going back to Chekhov, Allen’s cherished playwrights, every idea and character can be treated comically or dramatically, though Allen has usually opted to treat them comically. The twist of the new film is to “fool around,” to use Allen’s words, with the same story both ways. The tale pits a comedic against a dramatic version of itself, while both versions center on a somewhat enigmatic woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell), who out of the blue barges on her former classmates, and in the process changes their lives.

Allen has chosen to return to his signature work, an ensemble piece populated by accomplished artistic, occasionally neurotic men and women living in modern day New York, whose lives become increasingly complicated, a result of their own doing.

The film’s most intriguing element is that neither Melinda’s comic story nor its tragic story is real. Artificial by design, they’re both fabrications that Sy and Max glean from the story in the restaurant. One person distorts it comically, the other dramatically. The fun part is that sometimes the versions overlap, and sometimes they don’t; there’s randomness at work.

This strategy enables Allen to say something about the nature of storytelling, narrativity, and textuality, all relevant issues in film studies. The circumstances are similar for each Melinda, except that one sees circumstances dramatically, whereas the other lives with eternal hope and optimism.

Allen works fast–too fast. Reportedly, it took him one month to put the story on paper. As is known by now, few people read an entire Allen script. After polishes and rewrites, he shows his text only to his trusted collaborators, longtime casting director Juliet Taylor, co-producer Helen Robin, production designer Santo Loquasto, and his sister, producer Letty Aronson.

Indeed, most of the actors only get their particular parts. Gena Rowlands was one of the few actresses who demanded–and got–to read the entire script before committing to
“Another Woman.” Most actors find it strange–after “Shadows and Fog,” Kathy Bates vowed never again to work with Allen because of this anomalous practice.

The central idea of “Melinda” may be bright conceptually, but the execution is not. For a while, you remain intrigued by the movie’s structurethe two parallel stories that illustrate the fine line between what constitutes comedy and what’s perceived as tragedy. The film suffers from repetition of ideas and images. Structurally, too, the flashbacks within flashbacks are tiresome, and the transition from the comic to the tragic stories is rough. As a film, “Melinda and Melinda” is not imaginative enough to sustain interest for its duration.

Casting director Juliet Taylor, who has worked with Allen on many films, began brainstorming names of hot actors. When considering the pool, Allen took into account whether they had done comedy or drama, holding that “You can cast a comic actor in a serious role and they do a good job, but the other way around doesn’t work very well.” Allen has always kept his eye out for hot actors he would like to work with. You can practically write the history of American film in terms of who’s hot and who’s not by examining the ensemble casts of Allen’s films.

As a dual role, Melinda presents a major challenge, which is splendidly met by Radha Mitchell. Melinda is a classic Allen creation, a woman who wields a potent combination of sexiness, vulnerability, and mystery. Mitchell, best known for her performances in “Phone Booth” opposite Colin Farrell, “Pitch Black” with Vin Diesel, and the indie “High Art,” was recently seen as Johnny Depp’s emotionally detached wife in “Finding Neverland.” In what’s her biggest role to date, Mitchell is a revelation. Always commanding, and often stealing the scenes she’s in from the other actors, Mitchell is a major discovery. Beautiful, high-strung, and intense, she is perfect for the role.

Melinda demonstrates Allen’s facility for writing female characters. In fact, in most of Allen films, the best parts were going to women. The problem is, that when Allen writes for men, as he allowed, “I usually write for myself or some version of me.” That’s why, despite variability in looks and styles, all the men in Allen’s films sound the same, be they Kenneth Brannagh or Jason Biggs; the only notable exception is Sean Penn in “Sweet and Lowdown.”

Amanda Peet and Will Ferrell are cast as Susan and Hobie, the comedic version of the actor/director couple that Melinda is somewhat awkwardly introduced to. Ferrell, known for his characterizations as a “Saturday Night Live” regular and his comedies “Old School,” “Elf,” and “Anchorman,” is an unusual choice for the role of the smitten, sweet-natured actor Hobie. But he proves himself to be a versatile actor, capable of being a sophisticated romantic comedy lead.

The multi-nuanced character of Hobie is a welcome change of pace for Ferrell, who’s known for broader comedies. It’s the most “realistic” character he has played so far. For a change, he has to rely on realistic dialogue between people, and not on funny costumes, and there is no pressure to be funny as the humor resides in the film’s text and context.

Amanda Peet plays Susan, Hobie’s wife, a highly driven, not entirely ethical independent filmmaker or wife. Jonny Lee Miller and Chloe Sevigny are Lee and Laurel, the dramatic version of the married couple that befriends Melinda. Sevigny excels as the poised, pearl-wearing Laurel, Lee’s Upper East Side-bred pianist wife, who falls the velvet-voiced piano player Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who woos both Melinda and Laurel.

The Brit thesp Miller, still best known for his role in “Trainspotting,” is also good as the philandering husband and aspiring actor Lee. Rounding out the cast as Sy, one of the two combatants in the comedy vs. tragedy war over dinner is Wallace Shawn, the renowned playwright. The supporting players include Josh Brolin as the dentist Greg, Melinda’s blind date; Vanessa Shaw as Stacey, who spends a wild night with Hobie; Brooke Smith as Melinda and Laurel’s college pal Cassie; Zak Orth as her husband; and Larry Pine as Max.

The locations include some of Allen’s favorites New York sites, such as SoHo, Greenwich Village, the Upper East Side and Central Park, as well as Belmont Racetrack and the Hamptons. The restaurant featured in the opening scene, in which four New Yorkers gather for good food and conversation is Keith McNally’s Pastis, a trendy French bistro in the meatpacking district. Il Buco, an Italian-Mediterranean restaurant in Greenwich Village with a rustic private room downstairs lined with wine casks, served as the location for Hobie’s confession of love to Melinda and a dinner between Melinda, Ellis and Laurel. The skylit loft where Ellis resides, and from which Melinda attempts to jump in a botched attempt at suicide, is at the corner of 29th street and Broadway.

Hobie and Susan’s residence was an Upper East Side townhouse, while Lee and Laurel’s home is a loft on Prince Street in SoHo. For the first scene to be effective, it was important that the front looks right, because Melinda has that drawn-out arrival scene. In contrast to this grittier place, the Hamptons house owned by Melinda’s blind date, Greg is lush. Designer Loquasto added the trampoline and the animal heads, for the location to offer more specific cultural information about the character that comes through in a random way.

One of the newcomers to the Allen team was Hungarian-born lenser Vilmos Zsigmond, a master at evoking the visual mood and ambiance of a story. Allen’s seemingly casual style is deceptive–despite some improvisations. As always, he shoots mostly long master shots, and does close-ups only when the scene calls for it; some of Mitchell’s monologues are filmed in close-ups.

Though Allen was against accentuating visually the difference between the comedic and the tragic stories. Loquasto, a veteran of 24 films with Allen, used subtle design elements to contrast the two. He keeps the palette to warm autumnal colors and earth tones. Since Allen’s movies are like love songs to New York, he likes to stressing the glow to things, opting for a warm, yellow-orangey palette, like late afternoon lighting.

Zsigmond, too, made some understated adjustments in shooting the two storylines. The camera doesn’t move much in the dramatic scenes, the angles are lower, and there are more shadows. In contrast, during the comedy segments, the camera is at eye level, moves more, and is also freer and lighter.

Music is the distinctive finishing touch to any Allen film, and “Melinda ” is no exception. Hence, Stravinsky is used for the heavier moments, and Duke Ellington for lighter ones, but it is not consistent.

While the music may switch, the actors don’t. The only player who crosses the comic/tragic border is Miranda, which created a unique situation on the set. It was almost like shooting two different movies, with actors of one group trying to guess what the other group is doing.

On paper, but only on paper, “Melinda and Melinda” belongs to Allen’s classic movies, an intelligent serio-comedy, made for adult viewers adult film and dealing with the everyday life, such as the question: Do we create the drama in our lives, or does it happen to us No matter, Allen suggests, ending his flawed picture with the generic, upbeat line: “Life is short, and then it’s over like that. So you may as well enjoy it.”