More noise than signal

Melinda and Melinda

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

We don’t much like pigeonholing around here. If nothing else, it’s cruel to the poor little pigeons and the blood’s really difficult to properly clean from the drill bits. However, lazy a critical technique as it may be there are some directors output that lends themselves to such broad brush strokes. Michael Bay, for instance, is that bloke what makes glossy, vapid, big-budget boreathons. Uwe Boll is that bloke what directs films so bad they’re classed as offensive weapons in no less than thirty countries. Woody Allen is that bloke what does them films in Manhattan with neurotic lead characters (typically played by Allen). I can’t escape the feeling that were Allen to direct a World War Two epic, it’d be set in Manhattan. Woody Allen’s Troy would find a muckle wooden horse sitting outside the Empire State. Star Wars would have been set a long time ago in a Manhattan far away, although that does make it sound like it would be filmed inside a cocktail. Which is an interesting idea actually, better copyright it sharpish.

The point of this rambling, such as it is, is to say that when we find his latest flickety-flick depositing us squarely in Manhattan our sense of sublime surprise it noticeable by its complete absence. Hell, Noo Yawk’s a big enough city, could he not at least try a few miles away for starters? Melinda and Melinda has us rather rudely eavesdropping an after dinner conversation between four urbane Manhattanites, amongst whom are Sy (Wallace Shawn) , a writer of comedies who believes the very essence of existence is tragedy, and Max (Larry Pine), same job, aspects of human condition reversed. Told the elements of a story by their dining companion, both go off weaving them into their particular style and through the magic of cinema we get to see them acted out for our pleasure. Very splendid.

There are problems, of course, but we’ll get to them in a moment. The tragic portions of the film see Melinda (Radha Mitchell) gatecrash a dinner party thrown by struggling actor Lee (Jonny Lee Miller) and Laurel (Chloé Sevigny) in an attempt to impress the director of a movie Lee’s trying to land a part in. Off the radar of her old friends Laurel and Cassie (Brooke Smith) for some years, her sudden reappearance causes consternation and divers alarums agogo. Her tragic (aha!) past unfolds involving love affairs gone wrong, being barred from seeing her children, suicide attempts and incarceration in the Foam Padded Hotel. While she tries to get her life in order, including meeting dashing musician Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Lee and Laurel’s relationship becomes strained, thus increasing the tragedy quotient by, ooh, thirty-one percent.

In the comic version, Melinda (Radha Mitchell still, but with a cunningly different hairstyle) gatecrashes the dinner party of struggling actor Hobie (Will Ferrell, who as far as we’re concerned is still a hot little potato right now) and Susan (Amanda Peet), thrown in the hopes of extracting funds for Susan’s film project The Castration Sonata. They become friends, Hobie falls for Melinda but doesn’t want to hurt Susan, grows jealous of Melinda’s new bloke Greg (Josh Brolin), so on, so forth in a largely traditional rom com plus a few trademark Allen barbs style. While this seems like something of a glossing over there’s not a lot of fine detail missing from this canvas, both interwoven tales taking little more than ninety minutes in total to tell. There have been few films of late that we actively wished were longer, but Melinda and Melinda is one of them, as it badly needs a little more time to explore the characters given that that’s theoretically the point of the exercise. It’s left feeling far more hurried and shallow than it really needed to be.

That said, the point of the exercise is somewhat muddled. Marketed being along the lines of ‘same story from two different perspectives’, it’s really ‘two utterly distinct stories from two different perspectives’. The only meaningful similarity betwixt the twain coming from the eponymous heroine’s monicker, but her back story and character are so dissimilar across the two branches they might as well have been spun off into different films. On the upside, at least Radha Mitchell does a great job of portraying the two different characters she’s tasked with, although the completely different casts and locations she’s working with perhaps aids separation.

As you’d probably expect from a Woody Allen flick, the acting’s snappy and direction pacy, in the comic part at least. You’d also probably expect Woody Allen to be in it, but instead you get Will Ferrell doing a Woody Allen impersonation which is perhaps the real tragedy in this film. Reducing one of, if not the, finest comic character actors treading the boards in these times to merely aping Allen in the role I imagine he’d wrote with himself in mind seems to hobble Farrell greatly. Perhaps a welcome reassurance for the Allen fanatics, but from our viewpoint a needless frustration. Given that this is largely two disparate films spliced together it’s not too surprising that neither half of the work gets up much of a head of steam.

Due to a cola overdose, I was compelled to visit the little boy’s room about halfway through Melinda and Melinda. I say this not to necessarily inform you of my bladder functions, fascinating as they are. No, gentle reader, I mention it because having ‘drained the lizard’, to use the parlance of our times, I merely sauntered back to the cinema screen rather than the hot-footing one would expect had such an excursion been required during, say, The Return of the King. This says something about Woody Allen films, although perhaps you’d like further explanation. Well, the point, I think, is that even at his best there’s always something in Allen’s films that stops a true connection forming between the audience and his characters. It’s almost as if something has been written from the heart, and then carefully gone over with a thesaurus and notepad-full of clever one-liners in search of a home in a bid to up the film’s IQ, as it were. The sophistication, the refinement the elegance it adds damages the impact it has on all but the vanishingly slender fraction of humanity who actually drop phrases like ‘obsequious banter’ into everyday conversations. Perhaps I just need to attend more dinner parties.

I’m writing this a few days after the North-West coast of Thailand was battered with an earthquake, only a few months since that area was devastated by the worst natural disaster in living memory. Compare this tragedy to that found in the darker half of Mel and Mel, the fault of which lying entirely with the bored housewife of one half of the title and see which is more potent. More than a trifle unfair, of course, but given that we’ve seen only a glimmer of the depth Melinda could have offered her whining strikes rather a flat chord. The comic element, well, isn’t bad or good enough to get worked up over really. It’s Allen-by-numbers, which despite the barely literate rantings above isn’t a bad thing at all and I’d certainly be happier if he’d chosen to run with that section rather than the heavy-handed, detached tragic element.

I suppose, if Woody Allen makes the kind of films you love then you’ll take more pleasure in this than I. From someone who doesn’t give much of a hoot it remains a mediocrely enjoyable film and an interesting, if failed, experiment.

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