Melinda and Melinda is Woody Allen's latest attempt to reconcile his comic muse with his tragic muse, although both appear to have abandoned him. As a director, Allen hasn't been very funny since Manhattan Murder Mystery, if not Manhattan, and it's possible he's never struck a truly tragic note, although I'm one of the few critics who actually liked Interiors, his initial toe-dip into the icy waters of Ingmar Bergman. What Allen's never seemed to realize, tragically, is that comedy's just as serious as tragedy. Annie Hall says more about the human condition that a host of Interiors ever would.
As its name implies, Melinda and Melinda is two movies for the price of one, making it that much easier to feel like you've gotten your money's worth, but two times zero is still zero. What might just carry you through, however, is the formal conceit Allen's come up with ' a twice-told tale, one with a happy face, one with a sad. We open on a Manhattan restaurant where a couple of playwrights (Larry Pine and Wallace Shawn) are having a My Dinner With Andre-like discussion about the relative merits of comedy and tragedy. That leads to both of them tackling the same story about a woman who interrupts a dinner party.
Radha Mitchell, acting up a veritable storm, is both Melinda and Melinda. And if her double-trouble performance starts to seem like a tempest in a teapot, blame the teapot, because she appears to have been ready to rumble. In the tragic version, she plays a neurotically high-strung divorcÃe who shows up one night on an old school chum's doorstep and proceeds to wreak havoc on already messy lives. And in the comedy version, she's...well, not much of anything. This half of the movie belongs to Will Ferrell, as an out-of-work actor torn between his independent-movie-director wife (Amanda Peet) and the cute/nice woman who lives downstairs, Melinda.
Ferrell's been assigned the Woody-impersonation role, and he does a better job of it than John Cusack, Kenneth Branagh or Jason Biggs did ' not as good as Woody himself used to do, but at least there are some genuine laughs. Unfortunately, there are some genuine laughs in the tragic half as well ' unintended ones, I believe. But who could blame the audience for laughing? The writing's just as stilted, the characters just as contrived. Only the music changes ' Ellington for comedy, Stravinsky for tragedy. Of course, the young Woody Allen would have found Igor Stravinsky hilarious.