Radha Mitchell as Melinda
Will Ferrell as Hobie
Amanda Peet as Susan
Chloe Sevigny as Laurel
Johnny Lee Miller as Lee
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Ellis
Steve Carrell as Walt
Shalom Harlow as Joan
Wallace Shawn as Sy
Neil Pepe as Al
Stephanie Haberle as Louise
Larry Pine as Max
Comedy wins out over tragedy thanks to Will Ferrell’s presence in Woody Allen’s schizophrenic new offering.
Four playwrights sit around a dinner table debating the intricacies of comedy vs. drama, something they illustrate by taking a story they heard and spinning it into the genre of their choosing. In both versions of the story, a woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) shows up uninvited in the middle of a dinner party and proceeds to disrupt two marriages-one to funny results and the other to tragic.
Melinda and Melinda is the latest in a rather prolific run from legendary film director Woody Allen, this time exploring the differences between comedy and tragedy and how they can be used to tell the same story in different ways. Lately, far too many movies have tried to mix the two genres into a single story to varying effects, so seeing a filmmaker like Allen using both of them within a single movie makes for an interesting premise.
The rather simple set-up involves a married couple having a dinner party for friends when an uninvited guest shows up. Said guest Melinda, a college friend they haven’t seen in years, proceeds to tell their guests about how she is running away from a troubled past that involves infidelities and murder. Although she is obviously troubled, they offer her shelter until she can get back on her feet. Little do they know that her presence will affect their lives-in one case, tragically, and in the other, in a lighter, comic fashion.
In the dramatic segment, Johnny Lee Miller plays director Lee and Chloe Sevigny is his wife Laurel, who ends up falling for Melinda’s new piano-playing boyfriend played by Dirty Pretty Things‘ Chiwetel Ejiofor. In the alternative comic world, roles are reversed as Amanda Peet plays an indie director to Will Ferrell’s out-of-work actor Hobie, who becomes obsessed with the freewheeling Melinda. Obviously, Allen is much better writing comedy from his decades of experience, and the romantic comedy side of the movie might work well on its own. The dramatic side, by comparison, tends to come off a bit like a bad soap opera, both in its slow pacing, plot direction and stale dialogue.
Of course, the problem trying to tell two stories at once is getting from one to the other, and Melinda and Melinda is far from seamless in that regard. Just as you’re getting used to the tone and flow of one story, the movie switches, and after a while, it’s easy to get confused about which one you’re watching. Some of the situations ring false in both of them, mainly since very few people talk in real life like they do in a Woody Allen movie, nor is anyone nearly as neurotic.
Still, it’s always fun to see the impressive and often eclectic cast that Allen is able to assemble and Melinda and Melinda is no exception, as he takes it one step further having a separate set of actors for each story. The only common bond between them is actress Radha Mitchell as both Melindas, and anyone that doesn’t know this fact beforehand, will be surprised that they’re played by the same actress. Mitchell is amazing in the dual role because her character is so different in each segment. The romantic comedy Melinda comes across like the neurotic and flaky Allen heroine that we love compared to the whiny and needy Melinda in the dramatic version, who is generally annoying.
Will Ferrell is the movie’s true savior, not only showing that he can do more subdued comedy, but also providing an impressive Woody Allen impersonation when delivering his lines. It’s odd seeing someone of his stature acting like the normally meek and mild Allen leading man, but he is able to pull it off without losing too much of his own personality. Watching Ferrell sneak around, trying to spy on Melinda and her new boyfriend, or trying to find a way to tell her how he feels about her are the best parts of the movie, showing that Ferrell has a lot wider range than some might expect. After something like this, Ferrell might very well be pulling the romantic lead roles that comic actors like Jim Carrey and Tom Hanks have been able to do.
The rest of the cast is okay, but few of the ones in the dramatic section bring much to their roles or the story. Either way you slice it, Melinda and Melinda is still not quite up to par with Woody Allen’s earlier classics, but at least it has an intriguing premise and entertaining performances from Ferrell and Mitchell that make the movie’s comic segment worthwhile.