Review: Melinda and Melinda

A group are having dinner and discussing whether life is a tragedy or comedy. The film follows the interpretation of two of the diners of differing sensibilities (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine) using a similar set of circumstances. Both stories centre on a woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) crashing a dinner party. The comedic one (though both have elements of comedy and drama) has Melinda living downstairs from pretentious filmmaker Amanda Peet and her domesticated former actor husband Will Ferrell, who quickly becomes smitten with Melinda. In the ‘tragic’ story, Melinda is the old friend of Chloe Sevigny, and an unstable young woman who recently lost custody of her kids. Sevigny, meanwhile is unhappily married to the decidedly unfaithful Jonny Lee Miller. Chiwetel Ejiofor appears in the tragic version as a Harlem musician Melinda is interested in, whereas Josh Brolin plays the potential suitor in the comedy version. Brooke Smith plays a mutual friend of the women in the tragic version, whilst Steve Carell plays Ferrell’s friend in the comedic one.

Although not among his more popular films, this 2004 Woody Allen (“Annie Hall”, “Manhattan”, “The Purple Rose of Cairo”, “Broadway Danny Rose”, “Deconstructing Harry”) film is for me one of his more enjoyable films of recent decades and a pleasant surprise. Although a bit pretentious and fairly simple, the basic idea of the film is clever and interesting. Radha Mitchell is terrific in the lead (getting to appear in both versions), and an often hilarious Will Ferrell has one of his best showcases as an out-of-work actor who has watched way too many cooking shows. He’s rarely been this likeable on screen, despite playing a character attempting to have an affair. Amanda Peet has never been better as Ferrell’s filmmaker wife. Chloe Sevigny and Jonny Lee Miller are also well-cast as the kind of pretentious twats I tend to react strongly against. I consider myself a relatively articulate person (articulate enough to reasonably eloquently defend my use of profanity to anyone who dares to suggest it is a sign of a limited vocabulary), but if you can easily find a reason or opportunity to use ‘obsequious’ in a conversation, we’re probably not going to get along well. It’s a pretentious word that only pretentious people use. They probably cough up ‘ennui’ too, don’t even get me started on ennui, people. That’s the sort of characters Sevigny and Miller play here, at any rate.

The casting doesn’t all lead to success though, with irritating Brooke Smith a particularly flat performance and one-note sardonic delivery that plays as too affected. It seemed like she was trying to do a Tony Roberts (co-star of many a Woody Allen film) vocal impersonation. I also felt like she wasn’t really in character, rather it felt like she was just waiting for her cue to speak instead of genuinely listening to her scene partner in the moment as that character would. She seems to jump in a half beat too early and it’s an extremely amateurish performance that Woody should’ve noticed. Then again, everyone else seems to praise her, so there’s that. I also felt Chiwetel Ejiofor was kind of dull and his character equally as boring as the dentist Mitchell finds herself bored by, so I didn’t quite get the appeal. Josh Brolin is much more interesting as essentially Ejiofor’s counterpart in the comedy version, and sadly given far less screen time. Every Woody Allen film these days seems to have a name actor who clearly agreed to accept any small part just to appear in a Woody Allen film. A wasted Steve Carell is that actor in this case. He gets absolutely nothing of interest to say or do here, but hey…you got to work with Woody Allen. Tony Roberts generally got to play the kind of role Carell serves here, but Woody generally gave Roberts a lot more screen time and a bit more depth.

One of the interesting things about the film’s central conceit is how differently Woody deals with issues/intentions/thoughts of infidelity in the two versions of somewhat similar stories, and from different points of view (the commonality in both appears to be lying). And only Woody Allen could manage to find a way to make even suicide funny.

A clever central idea, some funny moments, and at least three strong performances are the highlight of this slight but very entertaining film about one’s perspective on life. Some will complain that the stories in both versions should’ve been exactly the same plot-wise, but honestly, Woody still gets the idea across. I really liked this, even if it sounds like a creative writing exercise.

Rating: B-


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