“Melinda and Melinda”

Woody Allen has cast Will Ferrell, Chloe Sevigny and Wallace Shawn in his latest flick, and none of them are any the better for it.

Topics: Movies,

"Melinda and Melinda"

Actors young and old still clamor to appear in Woody Allen movies. What’s truly wondrous is that Allen can still find actors willing to star in his movies at all. For his latest dead-weight confection, “Melinda and Melinda,” Allen has assembled a potentially interesting ensemble of actors including Will Ferrell, Chloe Sevigny and Wallace Shawn (though none of those three ever appear on-screen together). But even these actors — who, in other pictures, are often wonderful in distinctive ways — don’t seem like themselves: It’s as if they’ve been pulverized and pressed into convenient actor shapes.

Allowing them to be flesh-and-blood actors would be too messy and inconvenient for Allen. And so these performers, along with Radha Mitchell, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jonny Lee Miller, wander through “Melinda and Melinda” uttering lines no human being would ever say and no actor should ever be asked to speak — things like “I’m sure I look like the wreck of the Hesperus” and, my personal favorite, “Let’s just confine our passion to local motels and forget Capistrano.”

Depressingly, the dismal “Melinda and Melinda” is constructed around a great idea. The movie’s framing device is a dinnertime discussion among four New Yorkers, two of whom are playwrights, played by Shawn and Larry Pine. The group is discussing the fine line, and the overlap, between comedy and tragedy. So Shawn and Pine take a single scenario — that of a beautiful, troubled young woman (the “Melinda” of the title, played by a twitchily dull Radha Mitchell) and envision it both ways: Shawn outlines its comedic possibilities, while Pine fixates on its tragic nuances.

Both stories unfold simultaneously, with different sets of characters, although Mitchell’s Melinda is the constant. (The best way to keep track of whether we’re watching the tragic Melinda or the comic one is by her hairdos: Comic Melinda has a sleek blond bob, tragic Melinda a tousle of anxious curls.) Tragic Melinda drops into the household of a married couple, played by Sevigny, a piano teacher and socialite, and Miller, a surly, unpleasant, out-of-work actor prone to chasing very young skirts. Mitchell is an old friend of Sevigny’s, and Brooke Smith (a wonderful actress, who, even with all Allen’s actor-mangling, pulls off the feat of seeming human) rounds out this trio of pals. Sevigny and Smith struggle to help Mitchell pull her fractured life together and escape her tragic past, even as Sevigny’s marriage crumbles around her.

Comic Melinda drops into another household, that of Will Ferrell, another out-of work actor, and his wife, Peet, an ambitious but not-quite-successful film director who’s hoping to make a picture with a nearly all-woman cast called “The Castration Sonata.” (It’s one of the few gags in “Melinda and Melinda” that offers us even a fish-scale-size glimmer of the old Woody Allen, the one whose cleverness hit us on the fly instead of right between the eyes.) The complications faced by comic Melinda are different from those confronted by tragic Melinda, but they’re not much funnier, which is why the hairdo trick is such a necessity: The comic and tragic stories are cleverly intercut, but they’re both so inconsequential that it’s hard to bring yourself to care which one you’re watching.

Allen has the uncanny ability to make me feel sorry even for actors I’m generally not fond of. Here, for example, Amanda Peet is used as a walking elbow — instead of having many sharp angles, which might at least make her interesting, she has only one. In contrast — and it’s a big contrast, perhaps because Allen doesn’t trust us to grasp subtleties — her husband, played by Ferrell (an actor I love), is a soft cuddle of corduroy.

Infidelity is one of Woody Allen’s favorite subjects, which is understandable: It makes a convenient hat rack for his various neuroses. But he seems to understand nothing about infidelity, or maybe even marriage, at least dramatically speaking. Instead of allowing us to sympathize with both characters in at least some small way, in any equation of marital infidelity Allen always has to have a clear-cut bad guy. In the case of Peet and Ferrell, the equation is wife/hard, husband/gentle. In real life, and in intelligent, heartfelt movies, the lines aren’t always so clearly drawn. (To that end, be on the lookout for Yvan Attal’s “… Happily Ever After,” an upcoming French movie that deals perceptively and humanely with the subject of adultery.)

It’s astonishing that almost all of the actors in “Melinda and Melinda” are so uniformly stiff — as far as working with performers goes, Allen is a master of consistency (though, sadly, it hasn’t always been that way — he used to know how to allow actors to shine). Ferrell’s line delivery is formed precisely in Allen’s image. As in most recent Allen movies, there’s always one male character who’s carefully groomed to be the Woody stand-in, and Ferrell, although he can’t help being extremely likable, suffers for that here.

The only actor who escapes unscathed is Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the urbane, charming, emotionally grounded pianist and composer that tragic Melinda falls for. This is the kind of character who’s too good to be true. But Ejiofor, whose face radiates intelligent guilelessness, makes us believe in him wholeheartedly. He’s the only open window in this airless, addled movie.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>