It’s a comfort to Woody Allen fans to settle back to watch each new film, his trademark plain white titles on a black background promising a return visit to Allen’s irony-laden New York view of the world. But for Melinda and Melinda, the titles start out unexpectedly accompanied by classical music–Stravinsky’s Concerto in D–on the soundtrack. Before the credits are over, though, there’s an abrupt switchover to "Take the ‘A’ Train," and the territory feels more familiar.
With the music, Allen is signaling the central thesis of his film–diametrically opposed views of the world held by tragedians and comedians. The opening scene takes place at Pastis, the wildly overrated, but ever-so-hip restaurant in Manhattan’s trendy meatpacking district. There’s Sy (Wallace Shawn) holding court at his table, instantly evoking Shawn’s classic restaurant conversation film, My Dinner with Andre. "The essence of life isn’t comic," he says, "It’s tragic…Tragedy confronts, comedy escapes."
He then begins the story of Melinda (Radha Mitchell), alternately seen in parallel tellings seen from the comic and tragic viewpoints. Melinda is insecure, needy, and suicidal. She acts as a catalyst in the lives of the friends whose dinner party she drops in on, uninvited. In the tragic version, the hosts have a stylish loft and the music is classical. The wife, Laurel (Chloe Sevigny), is an old school friend of Melinda’s, a "Park Avenue princess," who must be bankrolling the stylish manner in which she lives with her husband, Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), a struggling actor.
On the comic side, the apartment is in a brownstone. The wife, Susan (Amanda Peet), is a filmmaker, looking for financing for her next movie, Castration Sonata. Hobie (Will Ferrell), her husband, is an actor, too, one whose special wrinkle on every potential role is to play it with a limp. He’s the Woody Allen stand-in, his role the role that Allen would have played himself earlier in his career. Asked what he does for exercise, Hobie replies, "Tiddly-winks and an occasional anxiety attack."
Centered on Melinda’s story, the tragic and comic versions revisit territory that Allen has explored through many of his past films–identity, neurosis, jealousy, marital infidelity, the multiple difficulties of relationships. Allen’s use of the tragic/comic dichotomy is occasionally confusing, the leaps back and forth between the two versions of the story sometimes hard to follow, so that the subtleties of the contrasts get lost. On the other hand, the characters are engaging and Allen has no shortage of zingers to scatter throughout the proceedings (both comic and tragic). They often may be variations on the lines he’s used in the past, but there’s enough freshness here to keep the laughter coming.
Production values are at the always superior level that Allen delivers (fine cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond). He’s bled the greens and blues out of the film, leaving a palette dominated by the ochres of old photographs. A lot of thought has obviously gone into the contrasting looks of the parallel stories as well as their substance. It might take a second viewing to keep it all straight and catch the intricacies of the overlapping scenarios. Meanwhile, it’s fun and it’s funny.