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The Baltimore Sun

'Melinda and Melinda'

Times Staff Writer

"Melinda and Melinda," Woody Allen's latest ontological dip into la condition humaine, sets out to determine whether life's "deep realities" are comic or tragic. It's a heartening and (especially considering Allen's last three movies) promising premise — even if the setup is so strenuously twee I kept expecting Noel Coward to trip by in the background, wiggling a martini.

The movie begins over dinner at an elegant restaurant that appears to be bathed in warm caramel sauce, as a pair of New York playwrights argue over which narrative form is more reflective of life. Sy (Wallace Shawn), a writer of comedies, sticks with his form; while Max (Larry Pine), who writes dramas, spins a sadder tale. To settle the argument, a third dinner companion furnishes the dramatists with a germinal anecdote, and asks them to determine whether the series of unfortunate events it recounts are ultimately funny or sad. The playwrights take turns spinning the anecdote into alternate stories over the course of several courses, neither of which lives up to its descriptor.

Sadly (and funnily) for a movie that concerns itself with getting down to the basics of human experience, "Melinda and Melinda" doesn't so much depart from reality as it turns heel and runs from it, covering its eyes and shrieking. Both stories revolve around Melinda (Radha Mitchell), an unstable beauty with a nose for trouble who, in each version, crashes a dinner party soon after returning to New York from the Midwest.

In the "tragic" version, she bursts in, disheveled, on a childhood friend Laurel (Chloë Sevigny) a preppy trust-funder and her bitter, unsuccessful actor husband named Lee (Johnny Lee Miller), who are in the midst of entertaining a director they hope will cast Lee in his play. Oblivious, Melinda lights a cigarette, demands a single-malt Scotch and proceeds to spill her guts all over the distinguished company.

In the "comedy" version, she intrudes on Hobie (Will Ferrell), also an unemployed actor, albeit one with a sunnier disposition and a way with Chilean sea bass, and his wife, Susan (Amanda Peet), an independent filmmaker and occasional assistant director (in stiletto heels, no less), as they schmooze a billionaire real estate developer they hope will fund Susan's movie, "The Castration Sonata." (That's right. "The Castration Sonata.") At this point Melinda knocks on the door, announces she's taken 28 sleeping pills, and vomits on the floor.

Peopled almost exclusively by haute bohemian types (with a couple of arts patrons and a white-shoe lawyer thrown in for diversity), and transpiring genteelly on vast, lush expanses of real estate, the characters in "Melinda" live on the fringes of gainful employment while enjoying ample leisure time to fret over thorny social questions and, in the tragedy, subtly condescend to one another, like characters in an Edith Wharton novel. (In the comedy, they do it like characters in a Woody Allen movie.) Melinda may compare herself to the country doctor's wife Emma Bovary, but she's much more like "House of Mirth's" Lily Bart — born into privilege and beautiful enough to stay there, but reckless with her advantages. (See what I mean? Just thinking about it puts me in a 19th century sort of mood.) At least Laurel's money explains the expansiveness of her swanky pad, though it makes Lee's scorching resentment toward her harder to figure.

But how to account, in the comedy, for the airy loveliness of Susan and Hobie's apartment? Or Hobie's habit of spending his days on the basketball court and at the track, not for the gambling, you understand, but for the louche fun of it all? At this point in our Woody Allen movie-watching experience, complaining about the characters' lives of leisure or Santo Loquasto's fantasy production design — one of the few reliable pleasures the recent films can be counted on to provide — feels like peevishness. But it's hard not to wonder if the cognitive dissonance created by Allen's refusal to adjust his characters' lifestyles for inflation, not to mention cost of living, haven't had a much more profound effect on his stories' ability to resonate or make sense anymore.

The "tragic" Melinda story can be distinguished from the "comic" version by its tone (staid versus twitchy), its score (classical versus jazz) and the exhausting pitch of Melinda's neurotic self-involvement. But would Allen really have us interpret Melinda's tendency toward romantic waywardness (i.e., she falls for the charming but unreliable hired pianist, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, instead of the rich but dull widowed orthodontist her friends picked out for her) as honest-to-God "tragic"?

It doesn't help that the usually solemn, self-possessed Mitchell is cast as unflatteringly as Judy Davis was in "Husbands and Wives" and "Celebrity," a black hole of an unhinged harridan, so lugubriously self-absorbed she practically leaves a sheen. How unsympathetic is Melinda? Even after confessing to a major crime, she sees herself as a victim, providing one of the movie's few (unintentionally) hilarious moments when she snaps, "I'm Melinda Nash, from Park Avenue. How did I wind up in a women's prison in Illinois?"

Allen's view of what's "deeply real" feels ever more deeply bogus as the movie progresses, his trademark wit having calcified into pastiche and unintended self-parody. The dubious privilege of playing the Allen character goes to Ferrell, a big, oafish comedian whose humor derives from his supreme, unwarranted self-confidence and lack of inhibition and guile. Wedged like a sofa cushion into a sock into the stammering neurotic role, he utters lines like, "They still talk about my Strindberg series at Northwestern.... I did it with a limp." Not that it's any easier to hear Mitchell twitter, "I heard love-making talk," or Sevigny — hardly known for her on-screen prudery — refer to someone's "augmented cleavage" instead of just grabbing the two handiest monosyllables. But could any actor be more ill-suited than Will Ferrell to a line like "Heh. I should tell my laundress"?

As the tall, strapping Hobie darts around his huge apartment and grudgingly goes along on day trips to the Hamptons with (another) filthy-rich dentist (Josh Brolin), claiming to take no exercise other than "tiddlywinks" and "the occasional panic attack," it becomes increasingly clear that Allen's idea of otherness is frozen in another era. The dividing line between the in-crowd and the out-crowd is as clear as ever, he just can't see it from where he stands. In Allen's universe, nervous, Yiddish-inflected yammering notwithstanding, everyone is Annie Hall.

Or maybe his later career is one big surrealistic gesture. Maybe he's deliberately going for the type of rarefied yet easily accessible nostalgic fantasy product that will appeal to retired insurance executives who can't wait to buy their loft in SoHo and get started on that novel. Seriously, where is that synergistic deal with a major lifestyle retailer already? Restoration Hardware would be perfect. The word "laundress" must appear somewhere in their catalogs. I'd bet money on it, but just for the louche fun of it.

'Melinda and Melinda'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for adult situations involving sexuality, and some substance material

Chiwetel Ejiofor...Ellis

Will Ferrell...Hobie

Jonny Lee Miller...Lee

Radha Mitchell...Melinda

Amanda Peet...Susan

Chlöe Sevigny...Laurel

Wallace Shawn...Sy

Fox Searchlight presents a Gravier production. Writer-director Woody Allen. Producer Letty Aronson. Executive producer Stephen Tenenbaum. Director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond. Editor Alisa Lepselter. Costume designer Judy Ruskin Howell. Production designer Santo Loquasto. Art director Tom Warren. Set decorator Regina Graves. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.In general release.

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