Montreal Film Journal

MELINDA AND MELINDA

I've always respected Woody Allen and, in my early days as a serious cinéphile, I saw and enjoyed his acknowledged classics. But only recently have I become a genuine fanatic: over the last six months, I went back and watched Woody's entire filmography, from the "early funny ones" to the late sucky ones, by the way of his more or less successful stabs at drama.

"Melinda and Melinda" is all that at the same time (funny and dramatic, I mean, not sucky!). The opening scene is straight out of "Crimes and Misdemeanors", with Alan Alda's "Comedy is tragedy plus time!" being matched by Wallace Shawn's "The essence of life isn't comic... It's tragic!". Shawn's character then goes on to say that what makes something comedic is in the eye of the beholder. Take the same basic story, have an optimist and a pessimist each tell it and it'll get laughs in one case and tears in the other. Comedy and tragedy cohabited in "Crimes and Misdemeanors", but in two separate storylines that only met in the last scene. In "Melinda and Melinda", it's the same story that unfolds twice through these opposed viewpoints. This is a great concept made greater by the way, unlike Storytelling and its distinct Fiction/Non-Fiction halves, we constantly swing back and forth between the Tragedy and the Comedy right from the opening titles music, which abruptly switches from the gravity of Stravinsky to the upbeat bop of Duke Ellington.

The gist of both tales has a woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) drop in unannounced at a dinner party organized so an artist can convince someone that they should work together. Further events involve a blind date with a dentist, an afternoon at the track, a chance encounter with a piano player, someone attempting to jump out of a window, etc. It's the same, but different. Melinda is either a new neighbour or an old high school friend, her ex cheated on her or she did, she doesn't have children or she's got two, a stage-trained actor does TV commercials ("I'm the voice of a toothpaste!") or he refuses to sell out, his wife spends all her time shopping and lunching or she's a radical feminist independent filmmaker ("It's called ‘The Castration Sonata'")...

This makes for a rich and lively screenplay full of ironic echoes that cleverly plays around itself. Allen is also at the top of his game behind the camera. The streets of New York, the interiors and the women all look gorgeous thanks to the cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond (who also photographed Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter) and, as always, the actors are wonderfully directed.

Woody once again shows his great taste in women, but for once doesn't cast himself opposite them and make out with girls that could be his daughters. Chloë Sevigny and Amanda Peet don't just look hotter than ever, though, they also give some of their best acting performances. And then there's Radha Mitchell who's extraordinary in the title role(s), as great as Mia Farrow has been in Allen dramas like "September" or comedies like "Alice".

The male cast includes Josh Brolin and Johnny Lee Miller, but the standouts are Chiwetel Ejiofor, for being the first African-American to be featured prominently in Woody's New York (I'm not counting the whore in "Deconstructing Harry") but also for his incredible charisma, and Will Ferrell because... I mean, hello, Will Ferrell in a Woody Allen movie? Doing goofy faces, yelling like an idiot and even bringing Steve "Brick" Carell along with him! I love Ferrell, but I didn't know if his silliness would fit well with Allen's generally more sophisticated humor. Turns out they are two great tastes that taste great together, Reese's-style. Will is hilarious as Peet's pussy-whipped husband, but he doesn't distract from the rest of the film.

This is first-grade Allen, his best film in a long, long time. In fact, I'm tempted to predict that, like "Husbands and Wives" defined the ‘90s, Hannah and her Sisters defined the ‘80s and Annie Hall defined the ‘70s, "Melinda and Melinda" will be Woody's defining ‘00s picture.

Update (12/04/05)
I loved every minute of the film when I first saw it last April, but then it opened to little fanfare, even from other critics and Woody fans. The Cannes festival came along where Match Point made a sensation, and soon everyone forgot about "Melinda and Melinda"... except me. I kept thinking and talking about it through the year -I even tried to lobby for its inclusion in the upcoming Voir year-end Top Ten, without success. Still, I started doubting myself, as I was clearly the only person in the world who thought this was a masterpiece. Well, I finally revisited the movie on DVD and came to this conclusion: everybody's wrong but me!

The movie is intelligent, sophisticated, moving, funny and romantic. The cast is uniformly excellent, the characters are all fascinating and the way the plot tangles and entangles around them is unpredictable and consistently rewarding. Most of all, there's Radha Mitchell giving by far the best, most criminally overlooked performance of 2005. I'm endlessly amazed by how she goes from bright and lovely in one scene to dark and mysterious in the next, as we flip-flop between comedy and tragedy. Open your eyes, people, this is great cinema!

4/6/2005