Melinda and Melinda
Written and directed by Woody Allen

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Will Ferrell, Jonny Lee Miller, Radha Mitchell, Amanda Peet, Chloe Sevigny, Wallace Shawn, Larry Pine


Melinda and Melinda

Woody Allen's new film "Melinda and Melinda" begins at an upscale Manhattan restaurant with four friends arguing about the relative values of tragedy and comedy. Two of the four are playwrights: Max (Larry Pine) writes tragedies, Sy (Wallace Shawn) writes comedies. Their friend poses a scenario and asks each of them to carry it through in their respective styles, comic versus tragic. His story begins as a young woman, Melinda (Radha Mitchell), arrives unexpectedly to intrude into the dinner party of her old friends. In the tragic version, she's come from the Midwest into the lives of failed New York actor Lee (Jonny Lee Miller) and his wealthy wife Laurel (Chloe Sevigny). In the comic version, she lives downstairs from Hobie (Will Ferrell), another struggling actor, and Susan (Amanda Peet), a filmmaker. The two scenarios will alternate, with occasional cuts back to the playwrights, through the film.

It's an intriguing conceit for a film, and since in the course of his career Allen has made both comedies and serious dramas we have every expectation that he'll pull it off. But somewhere along the way, perhaps halfway through the script, he seems to have lost sight of what makes for tragedy - the inevitable failure of one's life to live up to one's dreams - and what makes for comedy - one's response to that failure. Instead of concentrating on the relationships between the characters in each triangle, Allen brings in new people and new temptations, generating new triangles that end up demeaning the tragic and vaporizing the comedy.

Radha Mitchell, the third of the triumvirate of Australian actresses (Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts are the others) who have taken American films by storm, plays both Melindas and is utterly compelling whenever she is on screen. But Allen hasn't separated the two stories nearly enough to make either of them work. Mitchell wears different clothes and hair styles in each, but tends to say the same things anyway. After the first forty-five minutes, his alternating sequences began to look alike; both deal with monogamy and adultery, but the one is not tragic and the other is not comic. Even the physical comedian Will Ferrell starts looking like a tragic character. But perhaps that's because Allen has made the mistake of casting him as the voice of the standard, clichéd Woody, giving him pathetic one-liners and sotto-voce putdowns, which just takes us out of whatever is going on in the film at the moment.

The biggest jolt comes when Allen introduces Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a composer and musician, into the supposed tragic mix, so that Laurel and Melinda can both fall for him. But Ejiofor, the British-Nigerian actor who was so good in "Dirty Pretty Things," is like the 800-pound gorilla here; he takes over the film and it becomes a different movie, different even, I suspect, from Allen's intended one.

But on the most basic level, neither the tragic nor the comic visions work, because Allen hasn't written them deeply enough. Everyone plays out his or her role but we just don't care enough to be either moved by the tragic or amused by the comic. Tragedy should have life lessons for us, and comedy should give us perspective on those lessons, but "Melinda and Melinda" just gives us a headache.