- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2005

“Melinda and Melinda,” the new Woody Allen comedy, is an attractively mounted misfire that calls attention to its shortcomings by insisting on a schematic plot. The problem is that the scheme never yields the seriocomic contrasts Mr. Allen wants to emphasize — or thinks he does.

The movie’s twinned, parallel plots begin in a friendly dispute over dinner between writers played by Larry Pine and Wallace Shawn. Unfortunately, nothing of consequence gets untracked.

Mr. Pine’s Max and Mr. Shawn’s Sy debate the merits of tragic as opposed to comic attitudes toward life. Mr. Allen, who does not play a character here, devotes the subsequent scenes to their alternate improvisations on a common situation: the arrival of a “mystery woman” named Melinda at a dinner party. The Max scenario is meant to develop serious dramatic possibilities, while Sy’s explores the humorous angles.

The variants are depicted in alternating sequences, extended rather than incisive. The method is in trouble after the first go-round.

Mr. Allen fails to impose a significant difference in style between opening episodes with Melinda No. 1 and Melinda No. 2. As the title characters, Radha Mitchell is the only cast member who bridges the variations, and she’s insinuating in a delicately eerie way that recalls Tuesday Weld in “Pretty Poison,” not to mention her own performance as a coy opportunist in “High Art.”

The contrast Mr. Allen achieved in “The Purple of Rose of Cairo” remains out of reach here. Mia Farrow’s disheartening “real” life was brightened for a while by the cheerful influence of the movie playing at her neighborhood theater. There was an effective demarcation line between the poignant and the wacky.

Melinda No. 1 intrudes on a dinner hosted by old college chums from Northwestern, Chloe Sevigny as a Park Avenue heiress named Laurel and Jonny Lee Miller as her struggling, unreliable actor husband Lee.

She arrives trailing a history of misfortune and neurotic instability that are meant to hasten the marital estrangement threatening her hosts. Ultimately, Melinda and Laurel end up in a romantic triangle with a seductive composer called Ellis Moonsong (no, I didn’t believe it, either), played by Chiwetel Ejiofor of “Dirty Pretty Things.”

In the would-be comical variation, Melinda No. 2 sublets an apartment near Amanda Peet’s Susan, an aspiring movie director, and her struggling actor hubby Hobe, played by Will Ferrell, cast as the obvious Woody Allen surrogate. This challenge pans out in only one scene, when Hobe asks a big game hunter whose walls are adorned with trophy heads, “Did you shoot all the furniture, too?”

Mr. Ferrell enters as a fussbudget in an apron, destined to incinerate the Chilean sea bass he had planned for the dinner party. The production Susan is trying to pitch, “The Castration Sonata,” sounds like it might be Hobe’s life story. It would also be a funnier title than “Melinda and Melinda.” The upshot of the second plot is that Hobe’s platonic affection for Melinda develops into infatuation.

Since the tone and settings of the alternate plots seem indistinguishable within half an hour, the material doesn’t thrive on contrasts, including the philosophical distance between serious and comic outlooks.

If anything, it reminds you that Woody Allen is so comfortable with Manhattan luxury and complacence that he may not recognize them as stumbling blocks to empathy.

What unifies his screenplay amounts to little more than an itch to rationalize infidelity among shallow people susceptible to temptation. Not a bad comic subject, but he’s oblivious to its potential.

**

TITLE: “Melinda and Melinda”

RATING: PG-13 (Thematic emphasis on infidelity; occasional sexual innuendo and candor)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Woody Allen. Cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond. Production design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Judy Ruskin Howell.

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes

MAXIMIM RATING FOUR STARS

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