Melinda and Melinda

Melinda and Melinda

The premise of the Woody Allen film Melinda and Melinda is that the same basic story can equally well serve as a basis for a comedy or a tragedy.

A group of people at a restaurant are conversing about the nature of comedy and tragedy, and after one of them relates a story (not shown), he says he’s not sure if it’s more of a comedy or a tragedy. One of the diners jumps in to insist it makes perfect sense as a comedy, and another counters that no, it obviously is a tragedy. They then go on to spin out their competing versions of the story—one comedy and one tragedy—which is what we see acted out as the body of the film.

Rather than showing one whole version and then the other, the movie goes back and forth, with a scene from one and then a scene from the other. Different sets of actors are used, which makes it easier to keep straight which story is which.

From the set-up I was expecting the kind of “one event from multiple perspectives” type thing probably most associated with Kurosawa’s Rashomon, but also attempted by various other filmmakers, including Allen himself in Sweet and Lowdown. But it’s really not. This isn’t the same story perceived differently; it’s two very different stories, with only a few basic things kept the same or at all similar.

So it’s not like the two diners are each retelling the first person’s story. It’s like they’re imagining completely new stories vaguely related or inspired by the original one. (I guess. But in that case I don’t know how their stories are supposed to answer the first person’s question of whether his story was comedy or tragedy.)

For the first few scenes, I saw little indication that one of the stories is more of a comedy than the other. But then they diverge in style more clearly as Will Ferrell’s part becomes more and more prominent in the one (obviously the comedy).

I think the Ferrell character is probably the main factor in whether people will like the film or not. Because other than that, it’s mediocre. The stories are somewhat interesting but not very. The dialogue consistently sounds more like a Woody Allen film than like real people talking. And the same for some of the body language and the reaction shots and such; I think as a director, Allen puts actors in positions where they can look unnatural and amateurish regardless of whether they really are. The storyline is the usual New York artists and academics and such alternately chattering at dinner parties and having affairs that we’ve seen a million times in Allen’s movies.

So I think a lot hinges on whether we buy Ferrell as Allen. Because there’s no mistaking that that’s who he is in this movie. It’s not a movie that has Woody Allen type humor, or has various characters that bear certain similarities to the character Allen would normally play in his own movies; it’s a movie with Ferrell playing exactly the character that in the past Allen would have played.

And for the most part, that didn’t work for me. The comedy writing, the material, was fine. It was sharp and witty, a lot of good lines. (Not as funny as the early zany Woody Allen, which routinely crossed the line into surrealism, but more like the wise-cracking humor of Broadway Danny Rose or Manhattan Murder Mystery.) And I guess Ferrell is regarded as a superstar comic actor, so I don’t know that he delivered the material poorly necessarily, but the whole movie I was too aware he isn’t Woody Allen.

It may be that the character is too iconic. It’s like watching someone do Charlie Chaplin or Mae West or Groucho Marx or W.C. Fields, someone who looks nothing like the person and doesn’t come across as a mimic, but who is clearly filling the role one of those people would normally play. It’s too distracting that they’re not that person.

It’s a tough predicament, though. Woody Allen films without Woody Allen or an obvious Woody Allen character generally aren’t very interesting to me. (One exception being Sweet and Lowdown, which I liked a lot.) But when Allen has cast himself in the last decade or so, that hasn’t worked for me either. When I watch, I’m way too conscious how very, very old he looks, and I roll my eyes at the uncanny ability of his character to date hot babes many decades his junior. (That’s something I’d rather do than see.)

So the remaining option is to have someone else fill the Woody Allen role, but at least as far as this film is evidence, that’s problematic as well. Maybe the problem is Farrell, and some other actor could better pull it off. Maybe the problem is simply that the part has to be Allen or nobody. I don’t know.

I didn’t hate Farrell—or the film—by a long shot. There were a decent number of funny lines as I say, and the stories kept my interest to a small degree.

The main gimmick mostly didn’t work for me, since I think it needs to be the same story from different perspectives rather than two different stories to make the point the film seems to want to make.

So overall, Melinda and Melinda is not a complete waste of time, but it’s nothing special.

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