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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Thin line between laughter and tears

Melinda and Melinda

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Woody Allen
Running time: 100 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Once upon a time, in the opening scenes of "Manhattan," Woody Allen sat with three other people in a Soho restaurant, lingering over dinner and discussing love and life. Woody was a fortysomething media type, dating a girl of 17 (Mariel Hemingway) and chuckling drunkenly that this was the first time in his life where he was in a position "to beat up a girlfriend's father." And now, many years later the latest Allen movie, "Melinda and Melinda," opens with three people in a restaurant discussing life and love.

News photo
Brooke Smith, Rhada Mitchell and Chloe Sevigny in "Melinda and Melinda"

Before, Allen and his friends based their observations on their own lives and experiences. Now, the group of friends (Allen doesn't act in this one) talk about life in terms of fictional stories they create in their heads. They argue over whether life is tragic or comic, and two playwrights (Shawn Wallace and David Aaron Baker) take turns in making up two differing versions (a serious melodrama and a frothy romantic comedy) of a woman in her 30s named Melinda, beginning with when she crashes a friend's dinner party. The naughty bit of hormonal subversion that charged "Manhattan" (with teenaged Hemingway saying, with dewy-eyed innocence, to the older man, "Let's do it in a way that you've always wanted, but no one was willing to do with you") has been replaced by the earnest meanderings of late-middle age intellectuals, spinning tales that have nothing to do with them personally (and certainly not hormonally).

"Melinda and Melinda" is nicely crafted, with that particular zing in the dialogue Allen does so well, but there's always a nagging feeling that what you're watching are figments woven from a dinner-table conversation, induced by wine and the chocolate cake for dessert, and when it's over, these people will yawn and say they have to go home to bed. It's lacking immediacy, and consequently it's hard to care very much about what happens to Melinda or Melinda.

She is intriguing though. Simply put, she's an amalgam of his most women characters, sculpted by his hands over the years. Rhada Mitchell ("High Art," "Neverland") plays both sides of Melinda, surrounded by two different sets of friends. The story bounces back and forth between the tragic Melinda (her hair tied back in an artistic straggle, sexy clothes, a committed heavy smoker/drinker) and the funny Melinda (a blonde bob, relaxed outfits and a perky manner). Whether she's depressed or flashing a girlish smile, Melinda has those special qualities that Allen keeps creating on-screen and keeps falling in love with, every time: those wide, clear-as-pond eyes; the particular fragility; that passive-aggressive streak.

There Melinda is, crashing a dinner party that is part fun, part crucial to the careers of the hosts. In the serious-drama version, she strides in, demands champagne and announces that her rich doctor husband threw her out after discovering her infidelity and stripped her of all custody of their two small children. In the comedy, Melinda is a ditzy downstairs neighbor who has swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills and is having a mild panic attack; she throws up in her host's bathroom and later sits around entertaining the guests about how she left her husband, a rich dentist, holding a drill in mid-air.

"You like those dark girls, the ones who are always giving you trouble" went a line in Allen's "Stardust Memories," and indeed the tragic Melinda is sexy and self-seeking, incapable of talking or thinking about anything except her troubles. After crashing the party, she asks to stay for a couple of weeks and the owners of the apartment, Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) and Lee (Jonny Lee Miller) -- Melinda's friends from college -- reluctantly say yes (the couple have problems of their own). They think of ways to divert Melinda, and soon she hooks up with pianist Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), but remains self-absorbed, neurotic and perpetually wailing that she's too fat (Woody's slender heroines often wail this complaint). All of this eventually prompts Ellis to start an affair with the much more stable Laurel. Instead of thinking that the fault might lie with herself, Melinda holds the world responsible for her misery, and then, of course, does something completely melodramatic to retrieve Ellis' attention.

In the comedy, Melinda's neurotic symptoms are cuter, making her a secret object of desire for her neighbor Hobie (Will Ferrell). Hobie is the obvious Allen stand-in, and Ferrell has the underconfident, bumbling manner and stuttering speech patterns down pat. Hobie and Melinda's encounters are like seeing Allen and Mia Farrow again in the heydey of their romantic collaborations, and you almost expect to hear "It Feels Like Old Times" floating in the background as they have drinks in a darkened bistro.

The catch: Hobie is married to Susan (Amanda Peet), a domineering and viciously ambitious film director (definitely not his type of woman) who's actually ready to ditch him for a powerful producer. One of the funniest scenes has Hobie walk in on his wife and the producer together in bed. He is hardly able to contain his elation as she tells him that she's leaving. By this time, however, Melinda has found love with pianist Billy (Daniel Sunjata) and tells the crushed Hobie that she'll fix him up with someone gorgeous. Not to worry, though, she and Hobie are destined to that happy ending: a vintage Allen that involves a sweet embrace in worn, plaid bathrobes.

In the end, "Melinda and Melinda" is a study of Woody Allen's women by Woody Allen, a testament to the director's incredible ability to renew his love for a woman which, in one way or another, he keeps resurrecting onscreen at a pace of once a year (i.e., with each new work). Some longtime fans may be a bit disappointed though -- Allen continues to draw mainly from his own mindscape, which seems to have been freeze-framed these past 10 years and resembles a movie set of a spacious, charming New York apartment, laid out by Santo Loquasto (Woody's long time production designer) and in real life would cost over $5,000 a month in rent. It's unlikely Melinda (who works part-time in a gallery) could ever live there. But how would Allen know?

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