Woody Allen's 'Melinda and Melinda' (2004)

As any film enthusiast will tell you, Woody Allen’s track record as a writer/director has been steadily flagging since the 1990s. Most Allen fans and film snobs point to 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors as the last great Allen film. I enjoyed several of his ’90s efforts, such as Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway and Deconstructing Harry, and Mighty Aphrodite and Everyone Says I Love You have also been touted by critics. But his twenty-first-century efforts have been decidedly lacking in both the quality and humor that one expects from Woody Allen. While Melinda and Melinda is not Allen’s spectacular return to form, the movie is substantially better than many of his most recent efforts, including Anything Else, Hollywood Ending, Small Time Crooks and Celebrity.

Unfortunately, I think that only half of the movie works really well. Basic plot overview: someone tells a story at a dinner party and two playwrights spin their respective versions of the tale, one in the genre of tragedy and the other of comedy. The only character who overlaps both stories is Melinda, ably played by Radha Mitchell. The comedy storyline succeeds very well, mainly thanks to Will Ferrell, but the tragedy drags. The viewer begins to long for those scenes to pass quickly so that the plot returns to Ferrell and Mitchell’s comedic counterpart.

I think that Allen’s big mistake was not making clear to the audience from the beginning that the tragedy half of the script is also supposed to be funny. I watched the film with a friend and finally, three-fourths of the way through, we both realized that it was OK for us to laugh at tragic Melinda. The tragedy is, in fact, a melodrama with all of the preposterous language and lines present in abundance for comedic effect.

The talent of Allen’s actors seemingly was his undoing. Chloë Sevigny and Chiwetel Ejiofor are both very talented dramatic actors who make the schmaltzy, melodramatic script down-to-earth and truly tragic. While Mitchell doesn’t ham it up, she strikes a balance between tragic and comic that reveals Allen’s intended tongue-in-cheek portrayal of this pathetic woman. Had Sevigny and Ejiofor offered similar performances, the audience would have realized that Allen purposefully wrote a “bad” script for that section of the film.

But I must include my recommendation of Melinda and Melinda. As I said, this film is Allen’s best in years and it is an enjoyable experience, especially if one remembers to laugh.