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Movie review: 'Melinda and Melinda'


3½ stars (out of 4)

Woody Allen's films may have fallen on hard times critically in recent years, but he remains one of the great movie comedy creators. He can still crack a fine joke, spin a witty tale. In "Melinda and Melinda," Allen gives us at least half a classic comedy - more than we usually get at the movies these days - while having some elegant fun with an idea that has intrigued poets and smart alecks through the ages: the interchangeability of comedy and tragedy.

Focusing on a table of sophisticated wordsmiths at a Manhattan eatery, he shows their mercurial two-sided creation: a beautiful, complex, fictitious young woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell of "Finding Neverland"), who comes to embody those twin masks of laughter and tears that symbolize the theater.

Allen waltzes Melinda through two different sets of events, one concocted by comic playwright Sy (Wallace Shawn) the other by dramatic scribe Max (Larry Pine), as they nibble and quip with the usual glib Allen Manhattanites (like the crack Carnegie Deli chorus of comedians in "Broadway Danny Rose"). Sy puts her through comic Neil Simonesque paces; Max through tragic ones that hint at Edward Albee or Tennessee Williams.

The two stories weave around each other, sometimes confusingly. Max's gloomy Melinda has already been through infidelity, divorce, violence and institutionalization when she shows up on the doorstep of ex-schoolmate/rich girl Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) and her selfish actor boyfriend, Lee (Jonny Lee Miller) on a dinner party night - only to become later enmeshed in an ill-fated triangle involving Laurel, herself and suave pianist-composer Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejiofor of "Dirty Pretty Things").

Meanwhile, Sy's funny Melinda triggers slap-happy domestic dissonance among her friends, notably hard-driving ex-schoolmate/filmmaker Susan (Amanda Peet) and her hapless actor hubby Hobie (Will Ferrell) - a schlemiel who plays his "heavy" roles with a limp and falls so hard for Melinda he makes a stumblebum of himself. (Ferrell's is the role Allen once would have taken, and though Woody would have touched us more, it's doubtful he could have done it so hilariously.)

That's what "Melinda and Melinda" is about, how we weave tales and mold the world to our fancy. Neither story is real; nor are any of the characters, and as the two stories connect, collide and twist around and through each other - united by little except Melinda and Manhattan - Allen keeps vamping at his theme that laughter or tears count as much as events.Is that profound? Or is it pastrami? In a way, "Melinda and Melinda" has exactly what we want in a Woody Allen movie: wit, eloquence, irreverence, New York, jazz/classical music on the soundtrack, a glittering all-star ensemble … everything, in fact, but Allen himself. Ferrell, Mitchell and Ejiofor are all superfine, but the whole cast acts up admirably. And Allen's writing is as good and sharp as anything he has done recently.

You may wonder, though, why he didn't vary his filmmaking style more between his Melindas. Allen and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond ("McCabe and Mrs. Miller") shoot both sides of Melinda in pretty much the same long-shot, long-take, tableau style he has favored for decades. They ignore Charlie Chaplin's wise advice that comedy is a long-shot, but tragedy is close-up - and ignore as well the great face-up style of his old idol Ingmar Bergman. It's a shame Bergman's cinematographer Sven Nykvist (who has shot some Allen pictures), was physically unable to photograph at least half of this one - or that Allen didn't have the chutzpah to join Melinda's "two faces" in a parody of the iconic split-screen shot in "Persona."

But these are quibbles. Back during the time of "Stardust Memories" and "Interiors," Allen used to joke about people attacking his post-"Annie Hall" aspirations (or pretensions), calling for movies like "the old funny ones." Indeed, the greatest Allen films ("Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "Broadway Danny Rose" "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Bullets Over Broadway") mix both modes. So does "Melinda and Melinda" - though it's not a great one. But at least it reminds us how much the guy has under his persona.

"Melinda and Melinda"

Directed and written by Woody Allen; photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Alisa Lepselter; production designed by Santo Loquasto; music by Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Bach, Brahms, Stravinsky, etc.; produced by Produced by Letty Aronson. A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox Searchlight presentation; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1:39. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for adult situations involving sexuality, and some substance material).

Melinda - Radha Mitchell
Laurel - Chloe Sevigny
Lee - Jonny Lee Miller
Hobie - Will Ferrell
Susan - Amanda Peet
Ellis - Chiwetel Ejiofor
Sy - Wallace Shawn
Max - Larry Pine

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