With an intriguing conceit and some good performances Woody Allenís latest film is a welcome return to form despite never reaching the heights of his best work.
It is still remarkable to think that, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, a Woody Allen film comes around once a year. It has almost become a truism in recent times to say that his latest work is a disappointment and things have got so desperate that some (Hollywood Ending) couldnít even find a British distributor. Those that did (Curse of the Jade Scorpion) came a year late and his most recent effort (Anything Else) was too slight but Melinda and Melinda marks his best work since 2000ís Sweet and Lowdown. While its not a patch on the heavyweights in Allen canon it still offers up some solid laughs for those who lost faith in his creative abilities way back in the early 90ís.
The film begins with two playwrights discussing the artistic merits of comedy and tragedy. They decide to create two new stories involving a character called Melinda and the main device of the film is launched as we see Australian actress Radha Mitchell play two different versions of her in parallel plot lines. The comic one sees her intrude on the party of an aspiring film maker (Amanda Peet) and her actor husband (Will Ferrell), whilst the tragic story sees her gatecrash a party of old friends (Chloe Sevigny) and get involved with a piano player (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Whilst different in tone, the two plots consciously mirror each other as the film progresses.
The chief pleasure is the comic section with Will Ferrell ably playing the neurotic Allen figure in the absence of the bespectacled one. A struggling actor desperate for a role in his wifeís film (entitled “The Castration Sonata”), he becomes smitten with Melinda and unwittingly dragged into a subplot full of farce and witty one liners (when Ferrell complains to Peet that they don’t communicate anymore she replies “Of course we communicate, now can we not talk about it?”). Regular Allen watchers will no doubt notice the section where Ferrell and friends end up in the Hamptons as bearing more than a little resemblance to Annie Hall. The dramatic plot is not as engaging and although Mitchell handles both roles very capably, it lacks the power and poignancy of his more serious work in films like Interiors or Another Woman. Both sections work individually but you can’t help but feel the film would have been enhanced with more tension between the two.
Before anyone gets too carried away with what is an undoubted return to form, it has to be said that this is nowhere near the quality of his very best work like Annie Hall or Crimes and Misdemeanours. But it does represent a much more inventive work than instantly forgettable fluff like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Anything Else. Perhaps Allen still has another masterwork left in him and although Melinda and Melinda is not it, we can at least see he has regained the wit and invention that has been lacking in his recent films. One has to admire his astonishing work rate, but perhaps his desire to make a film a year is part of the problem. Maybe a break or a radical change of direction would help him recapture what made some of his best work so good.
If you are looking for Woody’s finest work then Annie Hall is his best comedy – consistently funny and inventive and filled with hilarious one liners it is essential viewing if you haven’t already seen it. Close runners up would include Manhattan, Love and Death and Hannah & Her Sisters – all terrific films in their own right. His more serious efforts are often overlooked and top of the bunch has to be Crimes and Misdemeanours, probably his last truly great work. Other overlooked films would include the Bergmanesque Interiors – featuring some marvellous cinematography from Gordon Willis – and Another Woman, which features some excellent performances from Gena Rowlands and Gene Hackman. Zelig was an unusual addition to the Allen canon and remains an extraordinary technical achievement given the limitations of the time and was surely a precursor to the SFX used in Forrest Gump.
For Woody fans the unofficial (but official looking) woodyallen.com site has some useful facts and the Wikipedia page on him gives a good overview of his career. Stumped has an interesting article by someone who used to hate Allen but now considers himself an ardent fan. Woody Allen On Woody Allen is worth a read to gain further insight into his life and career and, finally, where would we be without some Woody one liners?