Bob Dylan sings, “As through this world I’ve rambled, I‘ve seen some funny men, some rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen.” And some, like Woody Allen, rob you with a movie camera. Less than fifteen minutes into his latest, Melinda and Melinda, I was flat busted.
What’s happened to Woody, anyway? For years now, his output has been tolerable or terrible, usually the latter. I suppose we should feel blessed that, at least, he’s no longer playing sex-crazed sexagenarians, but, (and this might actually be worse), he’s having younger people play him. First Kenneth Branagh in the pathetic Celebrity, and now, in Melinda, Will Ferrell.
The premise of the film, which was written and directed by Allen and produced by his sister Letty Aronson, is simple. At a trendy Manhattan restaurant, two playwrights are debating the merits of comedy versus tragedy as the more faithful mirror of the human condition. The cheerleader for comedy is puckishly played by Wallace Shawn, a real-life playwright/actor and Allen regular. As he demonstrated in the excellent My Dinner with Andre (1981), Shawn, extremely bright and engaging, is an enthusiastic dinner companion. He’s part of the setup here, a setup for a fall.
Melinda, played by dazzling Australian Radha Mitchell, is the heroine of two separate, intercut stories, one "tragic" and one "comic". TragiMelinda, thirtyish, with a complicated past, shows up unexpectedly in the midst of a dinner party at the Woodyhattan apartment of Laurel (Chloe Sevigny), a trust-funded music teacher, and her husband, Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), an alcoholic out-of-work-actor. Melinda is a fourth-rate Blanche Dubois/Emma Bovary. Uh-oh, I'm dropping names like you-know-who. Tennyson, anyone?
Melinda is weighed down by more baggage than Marley’s ghost. Unlike most people compelled to travel cross-country by Greyhound, she turns up her perfect nose at champagne and demands single malt scotch. Laurel invites Melinda, who’s homeless, to stay indefinitely. She accepts, Lee is pissed at the intrusion. Melinda begins to talk, and talk, and talk…
“Comic” Melinda, distinguishable from her tragic doppelganger primarily by her hair style and having a home, makes a classic comedic entrance. She stumbles into her upstairs neighbor’s equally to-die-for Woodyworld apartment after taking 28 sleeping pills, and promptly throws up. The apartment belongs to Hobie (Will Ferrell), another out-of-work actor, and his wife Susan (Amanda Peet), a filmmaker. The occasion for the “comic” dinner party is to try to sell a big-bucks producer, gamely played by Matt Servitto, on financing Susan’s latest project. Setting eyes on Melinda, Hobie’s pupils dilate to dinner plates.
Ferrell plays Hobie as this year’s ersatz Woody Allen character, slipping in and out of neurotic-nebbish mode like a man afflicted with multiple personality disorder, or a burdensome tic. This kind of identity theft should be punishable by lethal injection.
The “tragic” Melinda supporting cast includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was excellent as the soulful doctor/hotel clerk in Dirty Pretty Things. Here he plays Ellis Moonsong, a musician and composer who’s sensitive, articulate, and perceptive, with the apparent ability to discern limitless depth and passion in every attractive woman he meets. In short, a complete asshole.
The movie would have worked better with subtitles saying, in big red letters, “TRAGIC” and “COMIC”. After a while, I found it difficult to remember which Melinda I was watching. The comic parts, with a few exceptions, aren’t funny, the “tragedy” is a yawn. Yet again, Allen exhumes ancient material. How many more dentist and podiatrist jokes must one endure? How many more references to Bartok and Mahler can one stand? This film is like a flavorless soup into which gags and cultural references are haphazardly tossed. The characters are either boring or utterly repellent, and everyone in Melinda talks and talks, like some weird incarnation of Allen himself. These are talented actors desperately trying to revive a moribund script, like medical students in CPR class huffing and puffing over their plastic dummies. As for the plot, suffice it to say that it’s got marriages headed for icebergs, and as much bed-hopping as a Feydeau farce minus the wit. The music is the usual Allen mix of jazz and big band standards.
At the age of nearly 70, Woody Allen appears creatively bankrupt. He hasn’t had a hit since Sweet and Lowdown (1999), yet continues to crank out one forgettable film per year. Speaking to a group of Harvard film students in 2000, Allen was quoted as saying, “I’m really a frustrated 1930’s playwright.” It’s a shame that he has always taken his comedic gifts for granted. He’ll never be an Odets, a Chekhov, or a Strindberg, and he knows it. But, don’t feel bad, Woody. The vast majority of us won’t either, nor do we have your comic talent. I don’t know about you, but I miss that little red-haired guy with the glasses, the stammer, the wisecrack and the leer. I know he couldn’t live forever, but, Woody, please stop handing us pathetic bits and pieces of him like doll remnants at a yard sale.
In the end, the biggest problem of all with Melinda is Melinda. Her character, “comic” or “tragic”, is so grating that it gnaws away at the film like a flesh-eating bacterium. By mid-Melinda, I was begging for someone to spice up her single malt with cyanide.
There are no bonus features on the disc. Given the less-than-mediocre quality of the film, I can't say that I wish there were, although a discussion of the making of the film or an interview with Woody Allen might have shed some light on why yet another of his projects went bad.
The disc is double-sided, with 1.85:1 anamorphic and full-screen versions on opposite sides. The former does the film more justice, as Allen's romanticized Manhattan comes off better on a wide screen. Veteran cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's work is well-transferred, retaining much of the rich coloration and texture of the original. This is particularly true with respect to the sepia-toned interiors and the varied lighting, from natural outdoor illumination to dinner-table candlelight. The sound is mono, a reported Allen preference given the venerable jazz and big band originals he favors. Little is lost here, particularly since Melinda is a talky film, and the dialog comes off crisply and clearly.
The DVD was obviously produced with love, but unfortunately, in Woody Allen's case, it's self-love. Apparently insulated in his sepia-toned universe, relying on his verbal facility and shopworn tricks, Allen's attention to detail is much ado about nothing. A lousy script makes for a lousy film, and a lousy film nicely packaged as a disc remains what it is, in spite of the window dressing.
Overall, there is little to justify purchase, or even rental, of this deja-vu DVD. Diehard Allen fans, evidently immune to the increasingly self-referential, tunnel-visioned and slipshod quality of his work, are welcome to it.