Melinda and Melinda
By Woody Allen
2005


A piano player enters a room at a party on a break from his set to find Melinda rubbing a magic lamp. Her wishes are not verbalized but events leading up to this moment assure you that she wishes she could do it all over again. They introduce themselves and she begins to cry shortly thereafter. When he asks why, she states that she has an emotional attachment to the song playing in the adjoining room. He inquires further, "Are they tears of sorrow or tears of joy?" To which she replies, "Arenít they the same tears?"

Interpretation and perception are what frame this yearís Woody Allen offering. "Melinda and Melinda" tells the story of one womanís journey back from the emotional despair she suffered after the demise of her marriage from two different vantage points. Over dinner and wine, two storytellers flesh out overlapping accounts of a story theyíve only just been made aware of. One sees it as a terribly tragic scenario while the other sees the foundation for a glorious romantic comedy. Suddenly, dinner and wine has become more of a deliberation over whether human existence is ultimately tragic or comic. As one who sits somewhere in the middle-opinion that his very own human existence is something of a hilarious run of disastrously bad luck, I was intrigued. More so, I wondered what significance, if any, Allen had in mind when casting Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine in the roles of sparring storytellers as they had previously debated idleness and nature in another New York film, "Vanya on 42nd Street" (1994), a film that is actually referenced later in "Melinda".

In both versions, Melinda Robichaud (Rhada Mitchell) barges in unannounced on a dinner party where the hosts are trying to impress their guests in order to secure something that would benefit them greatly. Tragic Melinda can barely stand, fidgets incessantly, shakes while holding her cigarette and, hair a naturally frizzy mess, asks for a drink no less than two minutes after coming through the door. Comic Melinda is introduced as also having difficulty standing, asking for a drink shortly after being invited in and announcing to a roomful of strangers that she has just swallowed numerous sleeping pills. Suicide is very funny. Without giving too much away, as it is still the beginning of the film, she lives after a good purging of her system. On the plus side, her hair looks great and she doesnít seem to have an addiction to nicotine.

Melinda has a past, one that is difficult and painful, whether you drink your single malt scotch from a glass half-full or empty. Arduous things inevitably happen to all of us along the way and Allen seemingly suggests that how you deal, how you live past them, defines whether you view life tragically or comically. The tragic Melinda thrives in complicated situations; she feels most at home when the life she lives is messy and emotional. Happiness is not a state of mind she knows how to embrace. Consequently, every bad thing that has happened to her follows her throughout her life. She cannot escape her past and does nothing significant to leave it behind her allowing her to justify her constantly scattered state. The comic Melinda opens her eyes to a whole new world after her failed suicide attempt (or at least thatís how you have to see it as the rather serious event is never mentioned again). Her past is where it should be; she looks to the future and focuses on the day in front of her. The question raised here is whether she has truly dealt with her past or is just more skilled at blocking out painful memories from her mind than the tragic Melinda. Does a romantic outlook on the lives we lead allow us certain liberties to suppress that which is most menacing? Is the tragic Melinda more real? Is the comic Melinda just a great faker?

The challenging role of Melinda went to Rhada Mitchell. Playing this role means balancing the film convincingly between tragedy and comedy while still being the same person with the same history at her core. As tragic Melinda, Mitchell wears her sleeves over her hands and barely looks at the people around her when speaking; this practice packs more of an emotional punch to the audience of characters she so desperately (and might I add, obviously) needs relentless attention from. Mitchell plays the comic Melinda as light and breezy. Dressed in bright colours, she is constantly smiling and always endearing. If we are watching this Melinda, it is because she is beautiful and good and we are naturally drawn to her. Mitchell walks the fine line between the two with captivating refinement. Sadly, in a disturbingly common move, Allen focuses more on the carnage and wreckage on the side of the highway instead of the road ahead. Whereas the tragic half allows Melinda to maintain the focus amidst messy romantic entanglements, the comic half seems more concerned with the plight of Hobie, an out-of-work actor who is no longer in love with his wife (Amanda Peet) and finds himself inexplicably fixated on Melinda. Hobie is played by Woody Allen, I mean, Will Ferrell. This is clearly the role Allen would have written for himself had he been 30-something years younger and Ferrell comes off as mimicking more so than acting. I still admire Ferrell for delving into a more serious role and he is compelling to watch as lovesick Hobie but his awkward nervousness and obvious insecurities canít help but remind you that youíre not actually watching Woody Allen. Itís distracting but not nearly as disappointing as watching Melindaís fate hang in Hobieís hands as opposed to her own. Tragic Melinda might not make the right choices but at least she makes them.

For all its flaws, "Melinda and Melinda" is a refreshing return to form for Allen. For the first time in a long time, he comes off as concerned with layering his films with philosophy instead of relying on slapstick humour and Hollywood convention to mask the fact that there is little underneath the surface. In Melinda, Allen wastes no time in making his point when it opens like most Allen films with white credits on a black background, set to jazz. Here the music changes from a melancholy string piece to a whimsical air and my face lights up knowing Iím in store for something provocative and stimulating that will finish by challenging me to make my own decisions about the way my own story should be told. After all, tragedy is not without laughs, comedy is not without tears and neither exists alone.

GRADE: B