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Melinda & Melinda (12A)



Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: None listed

WOODY Allen's Melinda and Melinda is being hailed as a major return to form for the writer-director, yet it only works in fits and starts for me.

The film is linked by the two stories of one woman (both played by Radha Mitchell) and based around the musings of two playwrights (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine), who are discussing whether life is either comic or tragic over dinner in a cafe.

The woman in question is Melinda - a mixed up, yet enigmatic singleton who suffers from all of the neuroses and insecurities that viewers have come to associate with a Woody Allen character.

In the comic version of her tale, Melinda is a single neighbour who gate-crashes the lives of an out-of-work actor, Hobie (Will Ferrell), and his film-making wife, Susan (Amanda Peet), only to change them for the better.

For the sweet-natured Hobie, she poses a potential new love-interest, particularly as they share the same outlook on life, while for the self-obsessed Susan, she represents a good friend whom she determines to find the right guy for.

The ensuing romantic comedy plays out in remarkably amusing fashion, with both Ferrell (taking the Allen role of old) and Mitchell providing truly endearing turns.

In the dramatic version, however, Melinda is a much tougher prospect - a suicidal screw-up who has just been dumped by her doctor husband and lost custody of her kids.

Once again, she gate-crashes the lives of a couple, in this case her repressed best friend, Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) and her cheating, out-of-work actor boyfriend, Lee (Jonny Lee Miller).

Her presence upsets an already fragile existence, exposing Lee as the cheat he is, while providing Laurel with a sexual awakening.

For when Melinda starts dating the suave and sophisticated Harlem jazz pianist, Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofar), it's not long before Laurel begins to feel her own attraction towards him.

Given the tragic tone of this particular story, viewers might be able to guess the outcome isn't that happy.

Both tales use comedy and tragedy to varying degrees, yet both are intrinsic within each other, thereby posing the question, can you ever really have one without the other?

The film's strength therefore lies in its ability to get the viewer to consider the question and maybe even apply it to their own lives.

As intriguing as the post-movie conversation may be, however, viewers might also find themselves lamenting its uneven tone. It is, quite literally, a film of two halves.

The comic version is a joy to be around, exuding a warmth and energy that recalls the Allen comedies of old.

Mitchell is a delight as the happy-go-lucky Melinda, while Ferrell, though more restrained than usual, provides a genuinely affecting presence, bonding well with Mitchell and sharing some nice scenes with fellow comic, Steve Carell.

It's easy to root for each character while laughing along at their various misdemeanours (Ferrell's reaction to finding his girlfriend in bed with another lover is priceless).

Yet the comedy seems to take a back-seat to the tragic version of the story, which Allen over-populates with unsympathetic characters.

The depressed Melinda wallows in self-pity to such a degree that audiences may well lose patience with her, while several of the other characters are simply too selfish to evoke much empathy.

Only the charismatic Ejiofar keeps things watchable, although why he would hang out with such a snobbish bunch is never really explained.

That said, it's credit to Mitchell's talents as an actress that she can present two such varying depictions of the same character.

Allen, though, fails to divide his time between the two as fairly as he might, making you pine for the return of Ferrell and co for too long during the dramatic moments.

But then I guess it comes down to whether audiences enter the cinema as optimists or cynics, and whether they mind flitting between the two scenarios.

At the very least, it makes for intelligent and provocative viewing that should appease the many Allen fans out there.

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