Representing a return to form for Woody Allen, pic juggles comedy and tragedy in two alternating stories about the same young woman struggling to straighten out her seriously messsed-up life. Difficulty in keeping the twin tales straight could hold back the film's otherwise bright B.O. prospects to within the norm of Allen's recent features.

Representing a return to form for Woody Allen after a trio of slighter works, “Melinda and Melinda” juggles comedy and tragedy in two alternating stories about the same young woman struggling to straighten out her seriously messsed-up life. The sensitive dual female role for femme lead Radha Mitchell stirs memories of complex Allen heroines from Annie Hall on down, even if the action is dispersed via a larger ensemble cast which he currently favors. His consummate ease with the genre is pleasure to watch, but a certain difficulty in keeping the twin tales straight could hold back the film’s otherwise bright B.O. prospects to within the norm of Allen’s recent features.

Over a friendly meal in a Chinese restaurant, Sy (Wallace Shawn) poses a conundrum to his fellow diners: Is the essence of life comic or tragic? For the sake of argument, he tells the bare bones of a story, which the others then embellish to illustrate their takes on life.

The story starts as follows: An ambitious young Manhattan couple, Park Avenue princess Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) and tippling actor Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), are throwing a dinner party to impress Lee’s would-be producer when suddenly the doorbell rings and their long-lost friend Melinda (Radha Mitchell) appears, bedraggled and woebegone.

In the tragic version of what happens next, the beautiful intruder — made up to look like a sexy, latter-day Kim Novak — is a disturbed woman who got bored with her Midwestern doctor-husband and dumped him for a photographer. Her husband took the children away and she spiraled into a suicidal depression that landed her straight-jacketed in a mental ward.

Melinda is a college friend of both Laurel. Drinking and pill-popping, she moves in with Laurel and Lee over the latter’s grumbling while she tries to meet the right man who will sort out her life.

In the comic version, Melinda (toned down for a girl-next-door look) is childless and a downstairs neighbor to the dinner hosts, who are ambitious indie filmmaker Susan (Amanda Peet) and under-employed actor Hobie (Will Ferrell, a deadpan alter ego for Allen himself). Bursting in on the party with a fainting fit, this Melinda develops into Hobie’s unconfessed love interest even while Susan is setting her up with a rich, good-looking dentist.

Back and forth the stories go, contrasting the destinies of the two Melindas. The tragic one rejects a nice widowed dentist to whom she’s introduced and instead falls hard for another wrong man, one Ellis Moonsong of Harlem (the charming Chiwetel Ejiofor), a handsome piano player and opera composer. On the same day that she learns she’ll never see her children again, she finds out Ellis is two-timing her with Laurel, whose marriage to Lee has meanwhile fallen apart. She is devastated. Yet even in the midst of her travails, Mitchell brings out the humor in her self-preoccupied character, by far the more memorable of her two Melindas.

Fate deals a better hand to the comic Melinda and offers the audience more chance to laugh at Hobie’s clumsy attempts first to hide his feelings and then, after discovering wife Susan in the sack with a friend, to joyfully declare them. As in all well-written comedies, obstacles keep cropping up that keep the would-be pair separated, but a de rigeur happy ending puts a satisfying cap on the tale.

As different as the versions are — and Allen does return to Sy’s story-telling group a few times to remind us where this outlandish fiction is all coming from — they have some very confusing overlaps which sidetrack the entertainment while viewers work to keep the characters straight. This problem seems inherent in the film’s key point: namely, that life’s comedy and tragedy are inexplicably interwoven or, as one character puts it, our tears of joy and tears of sorrow are one and the same. The bottom line is it’s hard to remember which story we’re watching.

Though he never appears on-screen, Allen is constantly present in the stagy, ironic Manhattan dialogue, which sounds like he’s doing the talking no matter what character mouths it. This makes for a quick-moving script and characters defined by their actions, not their words. Oddly lacking are the breezy gags and laugh-out-loud one-liners of classic Woody, though the multiple-character situations furnish ample smiles. Happily film ends on its best joke, a startling moment of filmmaking inspiration that sends the audience home laughing.

While sultry-soapy Mitchell steals the spotlight in the juicy title roles, Sevigny makes a notable contribution in illustrating the anxious, self-doubting side of a woman whose life revolves around shopping and lunch. Ferrell, though a lot taller, sticks close to Woody’s own film persona and reaps the benefits.

Keeping up with Allen’s wide-ranging cultural interests from Chekhov to Cole Porter, Vilmos Zsigmond brings an eclectic note to the lensing with a lot of in-jokes of his own, like the film noir lighting of the tragic story’s denouement. As usual, a predominantly jazz sound sets the scene.

Melinda and Melinda

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox Searchlight presentation. Produced by Letty Aronson. Executive producers, Jack Rollins, Charles H. Joffe, Stephen Tenebaum. Co-producer, Helen Robin. Directed,written by Woody Allen.

Crew

Camera (color), Vilmos Zsigmond; editor, Alisa Lepselter; production designer, Santo Loquasto; art director, Tom Warren; set decorator, Regina Graves; costume designer, Judy L. Ruskin; sound, Gary Alper; supervising sound editor, Robert Hein; assistant director, Richard Patrick; casting, Juliet Taylor. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (noncompeting, opener), Sept. 17, 2004. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Melinda - Radha Mitchell Laurel - Chloe Sevigny Lee - Jonny Lee Miller Hobie - Will Ferrell Susan - Amanda Peet Ellis - Chiwetel Ejiofor Sy - Wallace Shawn Also with: Josh Brolin, Gene Saks, Vinessa Shaw.

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