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Melinda and Melinda (2004)

Life can be a comedy or a tragedy, it all depends on how you look at it.

Rating: 5/10

Running Time: 99 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 12a

Over the course of a long and highly productive filmmaking career, Woody Allen has sometimes done straight comedy ('Small Time Crooks', The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, ALL his early works), sometimes dabbled in straight drama (‘Interiors’, ‘September’, ‘Another Woman’), and sometimes blended the two together in interesting genre experiments (‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’, ‘Husbands and Wives’, ‘Mighty Aphrodite’) – so he is, or ought to be, well-placed to navigate the twin path between comedy and tragedy demanded by ‘Melinda and Melinda’.

Two playwrights, Sy (Wallace Shawn) and Max (Larry Pine), argue in a restaurant over whether the essence of life is comic or tragic. When one of their companions tells an anecdote about the unexpected arrival at a party of a woman named Melinda, Sy and Max each retell the story of her messy lovelife after their own inclination, one as a light romcom, the other as a dour tale of alcoholism, depression, murder and betrayal.

Like so much of Allen’s recent work, ‘Melinda and Melinda’ seems a clever enough idea in outline, but falls apart in the details of its execution. If the two versions of Melinda’s story are to throw any light on the debate between Sy and Max which frames them, they ought to be radically different in tone (or, if you like, genre) but closely similar in every other respect. Yet in fact, apart from each featuring infidelity aplenty (like most of Allen’s work), a New York setting (although in different boroughs), a date with a (different) dentist, an antique lamp (in different locations), a meeting (between different people) in a French-style bistro and a (different) pianist, these two parallel tales have almost nothing in common. They are completely different in their plots and their characters (with different names and played by different actors) – and even Melinda herself, the only character common to both versions, is so altered from one story to the other that she may as well have a different name (although Radha Mitchell does an excellent job playing in effect two separate rôles). So far from the Hegelian synthesis of tragedy and comedy that it promises to be in its introduction, ‘Melinda and Melinda’ ends up being a rather pointless exercise in comparing chalk and cheese.

What is more, there is something disappointingly slight about the whole affair, or indeed both of them. Sy’s comic tale seems derivative and inconsequential, although it is saved by some classic Allen one-liners, and by a hilarious turn from Allen-surrogate Will Ferrell as Hobie, an unhappily married, neurotic actor whose trademark is to play all his characters (Henry Higgins, King Lear, Uncle Vanya) with a limp. Max’s version, on the other hand, seems more like trashy melodrama than tragedy, and hardly has the gravity to make Max’s case.

‘Melinda and Melinda’ passes the minutes amiably enough, and won’t (unlike, say, ‘Deconstructing Harry’ or ‘Celebrity’) offend your grandma – but if you want to see a more gripping and incisive examination of the relationship between comedy and tragedy, your time will be much better spent on Allen’s earlier ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’.

It's Got: An all-star cast, including Chiwetel Ejiofor as pianist and composer Ellis Moonsong (Woody Allens first serious rôle for a black actor); the line "of course we communicate - now can we stop talking about it?"

It Needs: To be funnier AND more tragic - or else to lose altogether its narrative frame, and own up to really just being two short, essentially unrelated films.


Faced with the choice between oh-so-slight comedy or trashy melodrama, some viewers might just prefer a different film.