Review: Melinda and Melinda


As I said before, I went on an extended shopping binge last week while in Salt Lake; eleven records and four or five movies. About 20 magazines.

One of the movies:

Melinda and Melinda, Woody Allen

Woody Allen has always been an admirable filmmaker for me; I never really felt justified in saying he was my favorite filmmaker, or even one of my favorite, based in the fact that I have really only seen a small selection of his films (he's directed 42 films, and I've seen maybe six to ten of them).

But I'm giving up the ghost—of the filmmakers I admire (Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola, Gus Van Sant, and Miranda July being my top, current generation filmmakers), Allen is at the top of my list for this reason; while I haven't yet seen his complete directorial career, what I have seen has astonished me. Never once, at the end of a Woody Allen movie, have I said, “Meh. That could have been better.”

Melinda and Melinda is no different; the film's base premise lies in the fact that four friends (two of them playwrights) are discussing the concept of Tragedy and Comedy and how they fit into life. One of these characters is portrayed by the (kind of) legendary character actor Wallace Shawn (who we all remember as Vizzini in the immortal Princess Bride); when a film begins with Shawn, you know you're going to have a good time.

As they discuss, one of the friends decides that he'll tell a story he has recently heard. The two playwrights are then drawn into a discussion of whether this story could be a comedy or a tragedy; we're introduced to Melinda (Radha Mitchell) as she starts her trek as two versions of herself—both stories begin with Melinda barging in on a dinner party. The only difference is based in the circumstances, characters, and tones of story. In the tragic, Melinda arrives, mid-dinner party, at the home of Laurel (the ever brilliant Chloe Sevigny), a childhood friend, and her husband Lee (Johnny Lee Miller). In the comic, she arrives at the door of complete strangers Hobie and Susan (Will Farrell and Amanda Peet, respectively).

When I discovered the concept, I expected the stories to come in succession; starting with one and ending with the other. Much to my amusement, Allen pulls through in a way I should have expected; the stories evolve side by side, switching from one set of characters and tones to another easily and without sloppy explanation shots.

What really interested me as I got into the film is the fact that Allen seems to be letting go of the concept of playing 'his' character in all of his films (mind you, I haven't seen them all, but the ones I have all feature Allen as the insecure lead); instead, he hands 'his' character over to the overly talented Farrell, who seems to mimic the standard Woody Allen style of speaking. The great thing about this is that Farrell does it so seemlessly; he adds his trademark physical comedy into the film, creating a less physically adept Allen protagonist—many of the scenes in which he becomes flustered feature both his neurosis and his physical awkwardness (with lines like 'Oh no! The Chilean sea bass sprinkled with lime powder!” coming out less Allen and more Farrell, making me wonder if Allen had actually written them or if Farrell had just completely and amazingly gotten into character while retaining his own humor), rather than the standard rapid lines Allen is famous for.

This decision on Allen's part is a tremendous one; we've seen him play opposite anyone from Diane Keaton, an age appropriate relationship and, in later films, both Téa Leoni and Debra Messing (in Hollywood Ending), creating a sort of mid-life crisis type image; as he progresses in age his female leads never do, creating a sort of off feeling of the relationships and, in some cases, needing to be explained by ever-important dialog. In this film, he instead makes the casting decision of Will Farrell's career—Farrell has always played the off-beat, unbelievable character, from Night at the Roxbury to Anchorman, and, as a result, we'd had him typecast as that character—however proficient he is in the situation. Melinda, though, earns him his write to be called an actor and not a comedian; Farrell becomes Allen rather than Allen becoming Farrell (which I don't think would be possible—Allen is Allen; his acting has never really been considered acting).

Most of Allen's movies are timeless (though a few, such as Small Time Crooks, aren't); with Melinda and Melinda Allen has added another timeless film to his career. Updating his previous themes and moods for a newer, younger cast, Allen never once steps over his sensibilities; never once are we confronted with knowing what year it is; never once do we need to know what year it is.

While Farrell takes Allen's role, Mitchell seemingly takes Keaton's (in both Annie Hall and Interiors); she's the lovingly neurotic girl in the comic half of the film and the desperate neurotic character in the tragic half (though, at points, a more fitting reference to Interiors would be a mix between Keaton's character and Mary Beth Hurt's). I'm unsure whether or not I've seen Mitchell in other films; she seems talented enough but, without context, any actor in an Allen film is phenomenal.

Sevigny, though, is always brilliant. Her turn here as the unsatisfied musician is breath-taking (though, probably not as breathtaking as some of her other roles); when we find ourselves deciding who to care for in the tragic part of the film, it's hard to decide whether we want Laurel or Melinda to come out on top.

So, on a scale? I'd say I'd give this one an 8.5 to a 9 out of 10; the film is nigh on perfect (from the familiar jabs at Republicans to the Wes Anderson like music queues) but, I think, my favorite is still Annie Hall.


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