In `Melinda,' drama is funnier than comedy

Woody Allen fails to reconcile his gifts for zaniness, satire


April 08, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Many critics who hate the new Woody Allen movie, Melinda and Melinda, still love the idea behind it - but after you see it you have to wonder why.

The set-up goes like this: In a Greenwich Village bistro, a humorous playwright (Wallace Shawn) and a serious one (Larry Pine) debate their views of life. To flesh out their ideas, they decide to draw parallel plot-lines from the same gambit: An unmoored young beauty named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) barges in on a dinner party and becomes a pivotal influence on the future of the married hosts.

Allen cuts between the two stories to contrast the comic and the tragic vision. And this strategy has been seen as a solution for Allen's own creative crisis - his inability to reconcile his gifts for zaniness and satire with his yen to dramatize matters of importance.

But is it a remedy uniting Allen's talent and ambition or a millstone crushing it with pretension? As the playwrights natter on about love and pain and the whole damn thing, you begin to feel that Allen's problem isn't his split creative personality but his confusion of philosophy with filmmaking.

"If they laugh, it's a comedy," Tennessee Williams once quipped, and that's healthier and wiser than Allen linking comedy to optimism and happy outcomes and tragedy to waste and death. At the climax even our deep thinkers at the bistro concur with the common wisdom that life mixes joy and sorrow. If only they had used that as a premise.

In the lighthearted tale, Will Ferrell plays the unambitious actor-husband of aspiring filmmaker Amanda Peet, and Melinda is a new downstairs neighbor who comes to them dizzy after swallowing too many pills. In the somber tale, Jonny Lee Miller plays the ambitious actor-husband of "Park Avenue princess" (and part-time music teacher) Chloe Sevigny, and Melinda is the wild one in an old college threesome that also includes a settled housewife played by the too-little-seen Brooke Smith (Vanya on 42nd Street).

The drama is funnier than the comedy. Allen keeps weighing Melinda down with catastrophes until she comes off as a howl - a wrong-way femme fatale. Sevigny's frustrated, secretly soulful wife, whose spirit pours from her fingers to the piano keys, is a wispy concept out of what used to be called "women's fiction." Miller proves to be such a randy, self-absorbed creep that he provokes giggles. Smith's performance is the one clear pleasure in the movie. They're the clowns and she's a surgically sharp and knowing straight man, cutting through their come-ons and confusions.

In the farce, Ferrell falls for Mitchell's sunnier Melinda and strives to find a way out of his loveless marriage to Peet - a classic starting point, but developed here with no twist or spin on the screwball. It's disconcerting to see Ferrell, a master of macho psychosis, adopt the stop-and-go dithering of Woody Allen-style neurosis.

The movie Peet wants to launch is called The Castration Sonata; as you can tell, even the gags that click are derivative. The "happy" part of Melinda and Melinda plays out like a laughless fairy tale. Allen should have left these pages under his pillow and hoped the joke fairy would leave him some fresh lines.

Melinda and Melinda

Starring Radha Mitchell, Will Ferrell, Chloe Sevigny and Jonny Lee Miller

Directed by Woody Allen

Rated PG

Released by Fox Searchlight

Time 100 minutes

Sun Score *1/2

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