I’ll freely admit to a time in my life when I was weak-kneed for Woody Allen films. His mid-Seventies great works – peopled with Upper West Side wanks who suffered from logorrhea, overeducation, and an exceedingly broad definition of monogamy – were like pornography for me, a young Southern hick itching for a blueprint for the way New York sophisticates lived and loved. No more. These days, Allen’s pictures are more like snuff films, in which the viewer must suffer both gifted actors committing screen hara-kiri and a once-brilliant filmmaker soldiering on with his long, bullheaded decline. The tendency for critics is to evaluate these late-era efforts with a "better-than, less-than" approach; I’ve been guilty of it, too, but let’s shuck it for now. Stand alone, Melinda and Melinda
is a rotten movie. There’s little concession to the 30 years that have passed since Annie Hall
, to society’s evolution in economics, speech, or music. (Allen’s go-to swing soundtrack no longer triggers warm feelings – only irritation at an aged dog reverting, always, to old tricks.) Try not to snicker as a thirtysomething shouts straight-faced, "That’s a baseless canard!" or as another character refers to "lovemaking talk." Go on – I dare you. Allen’s written himself somewhat of an escape hatch – these archaic-sounding characters are actually the invention of two playwrights (played by Shawn and Pine), who are older and more closely resemble Allen, but that explanation doesn’t make the film any more bearable. The playwrights bookend the film and appear occasionally throughout. At a bistro dinner, they argue the merits of comedy versus tragedy, then challenge each other to tell a comic or tragic version of the same premise: In both, an unhinged woman named Melinda (played by Mitchell in both stories) crashes a dinner party and proceeds to wreak havoc on everyone around her. It’s a terrific premise, but Allen botches it – there are few laughs in the comedic version, and the tragic version mostly just irritates. In the comedic tale, Ferrell (in the Allen surrogate role) plays a married, out-of-work actor who falls for Melinda. Although Ferrell does have several rather sweet moments, his sincere, dumb-lug brand of humor jars with the self-conscious Allen persona he’s forced to embody. The comic thread is a disappointment, but at least it’s not the effrontery that is the tragic version. That one requires a superhuman tolerance for women who wear neon signs over their heads that scream "save me"; I, a mere mortal, couldn’t stomach the pill-popping, suicidal, "tragic" Melinda, or her coterie of Park Avenue princesses and tortured artistes. The constant throughout is Mitchell (High Art)
, a lovely actress whose natural vulnerability has been reduced by Allen to nervous tics, her pain conveyed baldly and badly by fluttery hands and endless cigarettes. Mitchell, too, is given a brief respite in the comedic version; she and Ferrell share a genuinely (if gently) funny and heartfelt scene. As one of the playwrights opines, "Tragedy confronts, comedy escapes"; if you mangle that principle, it could apply to Melinda and Melinda
. The tragedy portions confront the audience with awful proof of just how tedious the filmmaker has become, while the comedic version offers fleeting moments of escape and Melinda and Melinda
’s only glimpses of how real people live and love.