Less a return to form than a return to formalism, Woody Allen’s 35th feature finds him happily at play in the house of fiction. Melinda and Melinda is predicated on kind of a kindergarten Jacques Rivette or Raul Ruiz conceit; it’s a tricksy narrative that doesn’t work too hard on its contrivances but (to be fair) doesn’t expect too much from you either.
Events are set in motion one rainy night in a cozy Village boîte with Wally Shawn enthusiastically holding forth on the nature of comedy. After another writer at the table disputes Shawn’s garrulous theorizing, a third member of their amiable party recounts the tale of a young woman whose surprise appearance disrupted another, no less strenuously sophisticated Manhattan gathering, and challenges them to determine whether her story is comedy or tragedy. This self-reflexive setup enables the entwined alternate-universe adventures of Melinda and Melinda, both played by Radha Mitchell—whose attractively stressed-out performance is the movie’s most convincing aspect. (As Lou Christie—or was it Klaus Nomi?—once trilled, “Two faces have I, one to laugh and one to cry.
Tragic Melinda makes her appearance in a downtown loft belonging to her old college friends, an unsuccessful actor (Jonny Lee Miller) and his Park Avenue wife (Chloë Sevigny). The less dramatically coiffed Comic Melinda haunts the Upper East Side and harasses a new cast of characters; she’s the ditzy neighbor to another struggling actor (Will Ferrell) and his high-powered wife (Amanda Peet). That the latter is the would-be director of an independent movie named The Castration Sonata is a clue, as if one were really needed, that the ungainly Farrell is playing the Woody character.
The two-track narrative proceeds smoothly enough, albeit with too few corresponding incidents. Both stories feature a day at the races and a resident dentist. Drinking serves as a narrative lubricant throughout. Drama is predicated on the bourgeois tragedy—or is it the bedroom farce—of unfaithful spouses, as well as both Melindas’ various liaisons (in both cases spurning dentists in favor of musicians). But this parallelism is ultimately arbitrary. Allen’s undisciplined sense of analogy results in an asymmetric set of romantic triangles suggesting that it is the presence of the Woody character that insures a comic reading. Neither comedy nor tragedy, the movie is closest to genteel soap opera. There are moments when Melinda and Melinda is a parlor trick, as worn and familiar as the magic lamp that serves a different purpose in each story.