Friday, March 27, 2009
Melinda and Melinda
Melinda and Melinda starts with a premise that might be derived from a college creative writing exercise. A group of people, talking over dinner, begin debating whether life is essentially tragic or comedic. Two of the men (playwrights — one a tragedian and the other a humorist) try to prove their respective points by taking the same facts of an anecdote and telling the story two ways, once as a tragedy and once as a comedy. It's an obvious formal exercise, a writer's conceit, and Woody Allen seems to be in an experimental mood by expanding it from a sketchbook exercise into a feature film. The result is an interesting, uneven film anchored by an astonishing central performance — Radha Mitchell as both versions of the titular Melinda, the only character to exist in both versions of the central story.
This story's basic outline consists of a triggering incident when the distressed Melinda stumbles into a dinner party. In the tragic version, she is worn out and fidgety, recovering from a suicide attempt and trying to forget the disintegration of both her marriage and the affair that ended it. She drops in unexpectedly at the apartment of her old friend Laurel (Chloë Sevigny), who is entertaining a theater producer who may be able to offer a job to Laurel's out-of-work actor husband Lee (Johnny Lee Miller). In the comic take on this scenario, Melinda is actually in the midst of committing suicide, stumbling into the apartment of her neighbors, the indie movie director Susan (Amanda Peet) and her struggling actor husband Hobie (Will Ferrell). What's striking is that the scene doesn't play out that much differently from the tragic one, with the exception of a tossed-off gag about Susan's insistence that her guests continue to eat while she and Hobie try to help their neighbor. This underlines the problem with the film: though it attempts to create a contrast between tragedy and comedy, the comedy here just isn't that funny, consisting mostly of reheated lines familiar from Woody's schtick in countless other films. The opposition of comedy and tragedy here is as superficial as giving the comedy a happy ending and the tragedy a sad one, without really delving into the interesting questions about why we find humor or pathos in various situations.
Instead, the supposedly "comic" story plays out like a light, fluffy tale of continually obstructed love, when the unhappily married Hobie falls hard for his flighty, troubled new neighbor Melinda. One wonders why Woody would cast Ferrell, or the gifted, naturally funny Steve Carrell (in a bit part as Hobie's buddy) if neither actor really gets to do anything funny; Carrell in particular seems wasted, mostly just delivering a few platitudes about marriage and honesty. Ferrell gets a few stale Woody one-liners and lets even them die; it's as though everyone thinks they've been cast in the dramatic half of the film. Maybe that's the point — that the only difference between comedy and tragedy is the way the story ends — but surely the script could've found a better way to indicate this idea than draining a comedy of its humor.
Fortunately, the "tragic" material in the film is handled much more substantially and intelligently — and what, exactly, does that say about a director once known wholly for his comedy? Radha Mitchell isn't given much to do in the lighter version of the story, but as a tragic heroine she comes into her own. She invests her character with an entire language of gestures and poses, ways of moving her face and speaking, a fully developed body language that communicates this character's emotional essence with every slightest move. It's a truly remarkable performance. It becomes hard to tell if Woody's writing is really that strong, or if Mitchell just brings out the hidden depths in this character so well that it wouldn't have mattered what Woody actually wrote for her. She's a shattered woman trying to regain some semblance of her life, some reason to want to live, and finding it, if only briefly, in a piano player with the unlikely name of Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Mitchell's every scene is quietly compelling, never overstating the naturally melodramatic emotions of her story. She has a restrained intensity that comes through especially in the scene where she tells Ellis about how she killed her unfaithful lover and got away with it. Her disheveled hair and black-ringed eyes, the way she smokes a cigarette with just the slightest tremor in her hands, her neurotic pacing and jittery mood swings: Mitchell builds this character from the smallest details up, creating a busy but always realistic performance that makes the tragedy of Melinda hit hard. Without her performance at its core, it's hard to imagine what Melinda and Melinda would be, but with her it's at least half a good movie, and even occasionally a great one. Mitchell, Sevigny and Ejiofor together craft the emotional foundations for a compelling drama in half the ordinary time for a feature film; the story is basic, even trite, but the quality of the acting fosters the necessary emotional investment in these characters. One feels their shifting attractions and breakdowns and self-justifications in the subtleties of their voices, the exchange of glances. Woody frequently frames the two actresses in tight closeups, allowing all the nuances of their performances to come through in their expressive faces: Sevigny's fluttering eyelashes and downward glances, a few tears gathering at the corners of her eyes; the hard lines of Mitchell's mouth and her flashing, fiery glare.
In short, this is a well-made drama wedded to a mediocre comedy. The film purports to establish a contrast between tragedy and comedy, but it actually provides an instructive example of the difference between vibrant, emotionally rich storytelling and bland storytelling that traffics in clichés. It hardly matters that the story in the film's tragic half is ugly and depressing, while its comedic half is light and, ultimately, happy; the former is viscerally engaging and the latter simply deadening. That in itself illustrates, better than anything else in the film, the message that Woody's shooting for here: it's not the story that matters, but the way it's told. He just probably didn't mean to get across his theme in quite that way.