In a recent interview, film maker Woody Allen was asked why he made “Melinda and Melinda” as two versions of the same story, one in comedy form and one in tragedy. He said that when picking a subject for a film, he is always faced with executing it in one of those ways. “I decided to trying it both ways in the same movie to see if I’d learn something.”So what did he learn?
“Melinda and Melinda” shows the prolific writer/director at the top of his game, with hilarious one-liners, compelling plot twists and stellar performances. And he almost pulls off the complex story concept. The problem is that the essence of Allen is humor, which runs throughout both inter-cut stories. During much of the movie, it would be impossible to tell the comedy version from its tragic partner if the actors were the same.
Allen introduces his two-headed Hydra as two Manhattan intellectuals (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine) philosophize about the power of comedy versus the importance of tragedy. A story idea is presented about an uninvited guest at a dinner party. The two versions are told, flip-flopping from one to the other. The initial conceptual cheat is that the wisecracking surrogate Allen character (here an out-of-work actor and neglected husband named Hopie, played by Will Farrell) is not in the tragic version. This is the big distinction between the two because Hopie has all the riotous Allenesque one-liners. We know that when we see Farrell, it’s the “comedy,” though his “tragedy” is funny in places. Central to both versions is the uninvited guest, Melinda (Radha Mitchell), who’s an excellent dramatic actress, but has no capacity for comedy. Imagine how well the movie would have worked years ago with a young, more versatile Diane Keaton in the lead.
“Melinda and Melinda” is flawed, but enriching visit to Woodyland. Just don’t expect to learn anything about the theatrical art not already revealed in other Allen entertainments. Woody didn’t.