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With: Radha Mitchell, Will Ferrell, Chloe Sevigny, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Jonny Lee Miller, Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn, Steve Carell, Josh Brolin, Vinessa Shaw
Written by: Woody Allen
Directed by: Woody Allen
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for adult situations involving sexuality, and some substance material
Running Time: 100
Date: 09/17/2004
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Melinda and Melinda (2005)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The King of Comedy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The slump is over. Woody Allen bounces back in 2005 with Melinda and Melinda, his best and most purely enjoyable film in a decade. Allen has finally avoided cutesy high-concept stories. During his slump, he cranked out stories about hypnotism (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion) or blind filmmakers (Hollywood Ending), but those one-note ideas quickly grew stale. Instead he has gone back to one of his simple, funny, observant slice-of-life stories -- the kind that turn into classics like Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Melinda and Melinda begins with a basic idea, but one that can easily be discussed in depth.

Two playwrights (Larry Pine and Wallace Shawn) sit around a table with friends, discussing the nature of comedy vs. tragedy. Someone brings up a scenario, and each playwright concocts his own story from it, one comedy and one tragedy. Each centers around Melinda (Radha Mitchell), a hard luck case who suddenly appears in New York and crashes a dinner party. In the tragic version, Melinda lodges with alcoholic actor Lee (Jonny Lee Miller) and his wife Laurel (Chloe Sevigny), falls in love with a piano player, Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and winds up in a love triangle. In the comic version, she moves into the same building as self-centered filmmaker Susan (Amanda Peet) and neurotic, out-of-work actor Hobie (Will Ferrell). Hobe falls desperately for Melinda, but everyone's timing is always off.

Cinematographer extraordinaire Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), in his first film with Allen, shoots both storylines in different hues. The tragic affair is steeped in gold, while the comic affair glows with a hint of red. Between Zsigmond's skill and Allen's touch, it's always perfectly clear which story we're looking at, and both stories connect with the same force. Allen even crosses the line from time to time by throwing funny lines into the tragic story, and terrible moments into the funny story, just to show that defining the two isn't as easy as it looks. But Mitchell (Phone Booth, Finding Neverland), in her best role to date, earns a good chunk of the credit. She looks different in each story, partially due to hair, makeup and wardrobe, but mainly because of her tour-de-force performance. She runs a gamut of emotions, from suicidal despair to babbling incoherency and cautious joy. It's a true Oscar-worthy performance, if voters can remember her for an entire year.

Ferrell also gives his warmest and funniest performance outside of Elf, playing the "Woody Allen character" that Allen himself might have played 20 years ago. Unlike Kenneth Branagh's shrill imitation in 1998's misguided Celebrity, Ferrell combines the character with his own charmingly clueless persona, and even manages to get laughs four times from a single acting-related joke. Yet Melinda and Melinda falls shy of masterpiece status because Allen's work isn't quite as effortless as it once was. His comic/intellectual talk sounds awkward and foreign at first; it might take our ears a little while to get used to it, or the actors need to grow into it. Either way, the film still begins with those white-on-black titles, and it plays with the same comfortable rhythm as some of the greatest American films ever made.

Note: The film contains a decidedly un-Woody Allen-ish clip from Edgar G. Ulmer's great The Black Cat (1934).

DVD Details: Fox's new DVD has to be the champion no-frills disc of the year. (Allen is already notorious for his complete disinterest in commentary tracks and other extras.) The disc comes with English, Spanish and French audio tracks, as well as matching subtitles. Additionally, it has that annoying feature in which one side contains the pan-and-scan version and the other contains the widescreen version; the pan-and-scan side is labeled in tiny print, while the widescreen side isn't labeled at all. This bizarre practice has fooled even the most learned of film buffs. Hopefully, the sparseness of this disc won't keep people from enjoying the movie.

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