Melinda and Melinda

Director: Woody Allen

U.S.A.| 2004. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 99 min

After a run of lightweight comedies that caused even hardcore supporters to lose patience, Woody Allen achieves a heartening return to form with his most idiosyncratic and substantial film for some time. A genuine tragi-comedy—in that it counterpoints two parallel stories, tragic and comic—Melinda and Melinda finds Allen stretching himself more, and clearly enjoying himself more, than in any film since 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown.
Framed as a symposium on comedy and tragedy, the film begins in a Manhattan restaurant where playwrights Max (Larry Pine) and Sy (Wallace Shawn) argue that the same story can be an example of either genre, depending on how it is told. Max’s tragic tale unfolds on the screen: a distraught woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) arrives unexpectedly at a dinner given by her old friend Laurel (Chloë Sevigny) and her actor husband Lee (Jonny Lee Miller). As the story gets under way, Sy cuts in with his comic version, in which Melinda is the neighbour of unemployed actor Hobie (Will Ferrell) and his thrusting filmmaker wife Susan (Amanda Peet). The film cuts continuously between the two versions of the tale, which turn out to have distinctive parallels.
Allen pulls off a tough formal challenge in that the film works both as drama and as comedy. In the comic half, Ferrell gives a charming and compelling turn as one of Allen’s most convincing surrogates yet. But the really dazzling performance—or performances—come from Mitchell, ringing the changes between the two halves of Melinda’s personality, one relatively well-adjusted, the other neurotically self-lacerating, but both highly credible as a self-described latter-day Madame Bovary.

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