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The International Writers Magazine
: Film Review

Robert Cottingham
Woody Allen returns to form as writer & director
Will Ferrell
Radha Mitchell
ChloŽ Sevigny
Wallace Shawn

Forget everything you've heard about Woody Allen being a washed-up talent whose career has gone down the pan. If his latest film is anything to go by, we are about to witness a creative rebirth from one of Americas most prominent and highly regarded directors. Melinda and Melinda is good enough to rank alongside his classic films such as Annie Hall and Hannah And Her Sisters. It continues Allen's canto of love poems to New York. And yet, stylistically and thematically, the film is a departure from Allen's previous movies.

The film begins with a group of writers sat around a table in an upmarket restaurant. They are discussing the merits of comedy and tragedy for telling a good story and engaging the audience. One is convinced that a story must handled seriously and to do so any other way would be to lessen the story's impact and power. And yet the other (played quite wonderfully by Wallace Shawn) thinks the opposite. To him any story, no matter how dark, can be handled with humour. The first writer gives an example of a scene he has thought of. A group of wealthy Manhattanites are enjoying a dinner party when all of a sudden they are interrupted by the arrival of Melinda, still a good friend of the hostess, despite having been living in St Louis unhappily married. She tells us her story. It is not a happy one. Her marriage has dissolved leaving her poor and unemployed. She appears bedraggled and disheveled after traveling on a Greyhound for four days, quite at odds with the wealthy slickness of the dinner guests.
And yet when the same scene is played as a comedy it ends up completely different.

Arriving late, Melinda announces that she has taken 26 sleeping pills - to the dismay of the complacent diners. Instead of appearing as vulnerable and frail, she is merely a vehicle for humour. The film continues in this way until the end. At first it feels as if we are watching two different films, which in a way we are. And yet Allen blends the scenes of comedy and tragedy together so seamlessly that we fail to notice the artifice of the film's construction. We find ourselves where we shouldn't be. Likewise, parts of the film, which were intended for laughs, are inexplicably touching. Such as when Will Ferrel (playing the Woody character better than the director could have done) rubs an antique lamp and wishes that he could love Melinda without hurting his wife’s feelings.

Actually, people seem to overlook the sadness inherent in most of Allen’s films from Annie Hall onwards in favour of the broad slapstick. There's some of that on display here, when Ferrel walks in on his wife in flagrante with a colleague. She expects him to be angry, but he was intending to announce his love for Melinda and he is instead blissfully happy, waving his arms around because he can't find the words to express himself.

I said before that stylistically the film is a departure for Allen. What I meant was that what we have here is his most lush, most stately film to date. The camera doesn't so much as track but glide, as in the first scene when it gracefully swoops and glides behind Melinda, given extra gravitas by the luxuriant orchestral score. Her performance is perhaps the best thing about the film. I don't mean to negate the contributions of the other actors. They rise to the task more than adequately. But RHADA MITCHELL (for it is she who plays the Melinda of the title) finds the range to express sadness and happiness in equal measure. She delivers two monologues direct to camera, which must have been really taxing. They are subtle yet deeply moving and full of humanity and wouldn't be out of place in an Bergman film.

Allen has always touched a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Sometimes though, as in Interiors, he forgot completely to make us laugh. He got bogged down in the sturm und drang of the film. There is no such problem here. In giving us Melinda and Melinda, Allen has excelled himself beyond all expectations.

© Robert Cottingham - November 2004
Robert is a final year Film Student at Portsmouth University

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