Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda has a neat central conceit.
Unfortunately, it's stranded in a late-period Woody Allen movie.
In an upscale bistro in Manhattan, two playwrights (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine) straight out of a Weekly Standard satire of New York liberals argue about the respective qualities of tragedy and comedy. After a nitwit seated tableside recalls a woman named Melinda ruining a dinner party (the horror!), the playwrights imagine the woman's story told from the frame of their favored modes. At this point, actress Radha Mitchell enters the picture, playing two Melindas one tragic, the other comic and the absolute need to evacuate the theater abates.
In the dramatic segment, Melinda is a suicidal mother on the lam (don't ask) who moves in with a college friend (Chloë Sevigny). Both women end up vying for the love of a smoothie opera composer (Chiwetel Ejiofor). In the comedy slice, Will Ferrell, doing a passable Allen impression (at his director's behest, one assumes), plays an underemployed schnook actor married to a budding film director (Amanda Peet, denuded of every savory quirk that makes her Peet-like).
In both segments, nobody works, and everyone complains incessantly about nothing in particular while imbibing fine vintages and name-checking Strindberg and Bartok in Valhalla-sized Manhattan abodes. Who are these people? Who accuses someone else of "a baseless canard," frets about looking "like the wreck of the Hesperus" and offers as an ultimate 20-something-style compliment, "You really know your Stravinsky"?
Actually, why ask? They're all Woody, whose experience of the world seems to be limited to the dullest wealthy folks living in a three-block radius of the Upper East Side and on two streets in Soho. One is tempted to credit the filmmaker for interweaving the two narratives well. But that's really Mitchell's doing. She splits the differences between her Melindas effortlessly, operating at an almost genetic level. Mitchell takes Allen's preposterous, bizarrely stagy dialogue and makes it seem like something actual humans might say. (Until you've seen the film, you have no idea what a compliment that is.) Her work is translucent, while her director is simply stuck and, worse, content to be so.
It's all so depressing. Allen once based his career on making mincemeat of the very people Melinda and Melinda dotes upon. He used to be a hilarious bullshit meter operating in an inclusive theater of kvetch. Not anymore, not here, and not for some time now.