Melinda and Melinda

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            Ouch.  Woody Allen has written and directed ďMelinda and MelindaĒ exactly as if it were happening decades ago when he first captured the Manhattan that was his turf.  His new movie may have modern production values, but it is quite literally a museum piece of his techniques.  Unfortunately, it is confusing as a whole and steps into a manhole when it tries to use Will Ferrell as a stand in for Allen himself who has grown too old to play the roles he writes.

            The movie opens with promise Ė two couples sit in a restaurant discussing a young woman named Melinda.  The men are playwrights, one a writer of comedies, one of tragedies, and each sees Melindaís story as a metaphor for his specialty.  The movie unfolds in both directions with Radha Mitchell playing both Melindas with commendable zest.  The problem for the audience is that the comedic story isnít funny and the dramatic one isnít compelling.  For Woody Allen, comedy and tragedy are usually mixed until they come out as depressed anxiety. 

    It takes nearly the full running time to sort the characters, and then itís time to go home.  The fatal flaw does its work as Will Ferrell tries gallantly to act Allenís lines as the master once did himself. Stuttering, repetition, worry - no one in the world but Woody Allen could have written or directed these lines, but here they are coming out of Will Ferrellís mouth, and Ferrell is not Woody Allen.  The effect is one of the unseen puppeteer speaking through his creation.  

You have to laugh at the time-stood-still factor.  All the actors seem roughly the same age as the actors of the early films Allen made with Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow featuring himself as the pale, frail worrier.  The camera wanders lovingly over Allenís indoor city life.  A tick sends Melinda into a frenzy.  The closest any of them get to being outdoors is when they walk back into apartments through front doors.  They must have been outside, but you wonít see it. 

Everyone is wonderfully neurotic, the interiors of the apartments and of the minds of the characters are cluttered and confused until they come forth in bursts of articulation, and thereís the problem.  Woody Allen writes and directs exactly who he is in real life and no one else can play him on screen.  His characters live still in 1970s New York, intellectuals exploring life at the dinner table.  We in the audience are wandering through the museum of the cityscape Allen has always loved, but without him on screen, nothing works very well.  He can still make great movies, but he probably has to leave himself out altogether as a character.  The fact that his unhappy, awkward little New Yorker canít be played by a younger stand-in isnít all bad news for Woody Allen.  He can write about his beloved city knowing that he is unique.


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