Forget "earlier, funnier films" – what happened to consistency? I'm often reminded of that infamous "earlier, funnier" scene in Woody Allen's close-to-the-bone 1980 satire Stardust Memories when sitting down to a new Allen flick these days. Does anyone need to be reminded of that ignominious early-2000s run: The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Anything Else? Thankfully, the New York auteur regains his balance with the conceptual lark of Melinda and Melinda – it's a bifurcated exploration of drama and comedy that works well in equal measure.
As befits an Allen film, Melinda and Melinda is powered by an eclectic, engaging cast – Will Ferrell, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Wallace Shawn, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloe Sevigny, Amanda Peet, Josh Brolin and Steve Carell – but the film (per the title) belongs to the luminous, unhinged performance by Aussie Radha Mitchell as the titular Melinda. It's a winning, dexterous piece of acting that goes a long way towards making Allen's dual narrative work seamlessly.
The main thesis of Melinda and Melinda is that life is either comic or tragic – it's all in how you look at it. Two playwrights (Shawn and Larry Pine) spin different takes on the same tale – one light and funny, the other serious and dour. Allen spends roughly five-10 minutes setting up each scenario and then freely cuts between them, advancing the narrative pair and neatly folding them back on each other, with referential actions/lines of dialogue. It's a neat trick that works more often than not.
The tragedy concerns a young Manhattan couple, Laurel (Sevigny) and Lee (Miller), whose dinner party is interrupted by their long-lost friend Melinda (Mitchell) – it turns out that in a suicidal rage, after her husband absconded with her kids, she landed in a mental institution, addicted to pills. The comedy centers on Hobie (Ferrell) and Susan (Peet), an actor and indie filmmaker, respectively, whose dinner party is likewise interrupted by their downstairs neighbor Melinda (Mitchell again), who bewitches the excitable Hobie.
At a brisk 99 minutes, Melinda and Melinda unfolds quickly and easily; Mitchell's deft switching between the light and dark Melindas aside, the competent cast is excellent throughout, with nary a false note struck. Just a heads-up to Ferrell fans expecting a patented comedic freak-out: watch Anchorman again or something. Ferrell's quite subdued (but still hysterical) and actually gets most of his laughs in the last 20 minutes.
With Match Point, Allen's latest (and of this writing, as-yet-unreleased) film getting positive buzz, perhaps that early-00s streak of subpar films is behind the Woodmeister and he can get back to the business of keenly observed, stealthily acidic funny. Melinda and Melinda is certainly an excellent start.
Melinda and Melinda is presented on a flipper disc: one side is 1.33:1 fullscreen and the other 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The widescreen transfer is razor sharp and free of any glaring defect; overall, it's a very smooth, film-like image, befitting a recently released title.
Dolby mono is the lone soundtrack offered, keeping with Allen's low-tech wishes. Dialogue is heard clearly and without distortion and the classical/jazz-heavy score is sharp and as robust as a single speaker can offer. Optional English subtitles are also available.
A trailer for Separate Lies precedes the menu, but that's the only bonus you'll find here.
A knock-out cast and a nifty narrative hook make Melinda and Melinda a welcome return to form for writer/director Woody Allen – it's a winning, minor-key effort that doesn't rank among the classics but is easily recommended for Allen fans or as a date night rental. Recommended.