Like most of his latter-day films, Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda is premised on a fizzy intellectual supposition: that the line between comedy and tragedy is a very fine one in art as well as in life. In art, perception can shift the line; in life, nuances of behavior or the vagaries of fate can send one over the line.
Allen illustrates his point by telling two funhouse mirror images of the same story. After a musically bipolar version of the Woody Allen credit sequence (Stravinsky's "Concerto in D for Strings" vs. Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train"), the film opens on a batch of typically tony Allen New Yorkers chattering over dinner. One (Larry Pine) identifies himself as a writer of tragedies, while another (Wallace Shawn) writes comedies. When they quibble over life's propensities for tragedy and comedy, a friend offers up an anecdote, asking: is it tragedy or comedy?
The answer is both. Though we never hear the full anecdote, both authors immediately respond to the material and spin their respective tragic-tinged and comedy-confected versions of the story. Both center around a woman on the verge named Melinda (Radha Mitchell of Finding Neverland), who blithely crashes a dinner party held by friends of hers: a troubled married couple.
In the tragic version, the deeply neurotic Melinda harbors a dark secret, even as she cops to a damaging breakup and a suicide attempt in her past. In the comedic version, Melinda's suicide attempt is a cry for help and a prelude to leaning on her friends for emotional support and dating advice.
Her "tragic" friends are Laurel (Chloë Sevigny) and Lee (Jonny Lee Miller). Laurel has been quietly suffering Lee, a bitter young actor with a whiff of desperation and alcohol about him ("Life has a malicious way of dealing with great potential," he says). Melinda's "comic" friends are small-time actor Hobie (Will Ferrell) and burgeoning indie-film director Susan (Amanda Peet), sexless marrieds on the outs.
From the audience's perspective, both stories offer risky romantic opportunity: tragic Melinda with a garrulous musician named Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejiofor of Dirty Pretty Things) and comic Melinda with the neurotic Hobie. Allen's most valuable player (from an artistic standpoint, that is) is the unfailingly vital Mitchell, whose Melindas credibly offer up two sides of the same coin. Her comedic self betrays a sad undertone to her romantic pursuits, and her tragic self is sadly funny in her self-destructive neuroses. When she mentions crying to Moonsong, he asks, "Are they tears of sorrow or tears of joy?" and she replies, "Aren't they the same tears?"
Moonsong offers, not very helpfully, "Living is messy," and while telling the stories, Allen indeed teases the overlap of tragedy and comedy. Both assertions are disingenuous: the "comedy" troubleshoots as many secrets and lies as the "tragedy," and the "tragedy" bubbles with rueful humor. Though this—like the film's concept—is a good idea, Allen's execution compares unfavorably to his past work. Compare the tit-for-tat tragic-comic stylings of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives to Melinda and Melinda's bungled tonal mélange, and you'll see what I mean.
Mitchell aside, most of the actors at least faintly overplay their characters, and as a consequence, neither story properly involves the audience's emotions. Ferrell has funny moments, to be sure (his grumpy one-liners on a double date and a bit of physical comedy involving a robe come to mind), and he taps the inner sweetness on display in Elf to make his character likeable. Unfortunately, he too rarely seems comfortable and never fits into Allen's drily upper-crust universe.
The stories parallel each other in intriguing ways, and one tossed-off line suggests that, without too much effort, Allen could have pulled the rug from under the audience by linking the two stories chronologically in sequence. But those waiting for the story to deepen will still be waiting on the way out of the theatre (and would do well to take note of Allen's definitive musical choice at picture's end). A genie-lamp curio gives a character in each story an opportunity to wish for something more; Allen gives us that same opportunity.
But for all its failings and frustrations to lifelong Allen fans, the subversively philosophical Melinda and Melinda poses a provocative question to its audience: is your life a comedy or a tragedy, and—horrors!—do observers see your life the same way? (Answer: fat chance.) Allen has at least one great character in Melinda and enough thoughtfulness, creative energy, and comedic idiosyncracy to outpace any five modern comedies, much less two. For that, we can continue to be grateful that Allen comes along once a year to stoke the embers.