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Issue Date:  April 15, 2005

Tragicomic experiments on film

'Melinda and Melinda' tells two versions of same story; romance, drama in 'Upside of Anger'


Aware of all the pleasure Woody Allen has given us over the years, movie fans may expect too much of Melinda and Melinda, a story framed by a Manhattan restaurant discussion about comedy and tragedy. Two playwrights (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine) argue about whether an anecdote about a distraught young woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) crashing an upper middle-class dinner party is more suitable for one or the other disposition. In both the comic and tragic versions of the tale, her arrival puts a strain on failing marriages, and the movie goes on to observe Melinda’s own shifting romantic attachments.

As could be predicted of an Allen film, we never take the tragic version of Melinda’s plight seriously, even though she tells her old college friend, Laurel (Chloë Sevigny), a bitter story of divorce, the loss of children to a vindictive husband, attempted suicide and a brief jail sentence. Unfortunately, though the actress may be beautiful, the character she plays is so volatile as to be dangerous. Naively enough, Laurel, who shops full-time and teaches piano on the side, begins planning a party so that Melinda can meet some unattached men.

In the comic version, Melinda lives downstairs from Hobie, an unemployed actor (Will Ferrell), and his wife Susan (Amanda Peet), who is looking for someone to invest in her independent film. Even though Melinda swallows 28 sleeping pills and vomits on the living room rug, Hobie is entranced with her. His is the role the younger Allen would have reserved for himself; Mr. Ferrell isn’t as quick with dismissive one-liners, though he brags about how he played both King Lear and a part in Chekhov with a limp.

Mr. Allen keeps shifting back and forth between the two stories so that you don’t always know which you are watching, but I decided that when Ms. Mitchell is especially hysterical, it’s probably supposed to be tragedy. The action is interrupted several times by a return to the pretentious dinner-table debate with which it began, making me want to retreat to the lobby with a copy of Walter Kerr’s Tragedy and Comedy.

This doesn’t mean that Mr. Allen has lost his talent for revealing psychological confusion in comic terms. More newsworthy is the fact that he has finally discovered that there is an African-American population in Manhattan, casting handsome Chiwetel Ejiofor as the successful pianist-composer Ellis Moonsong, who soon finds himself fought over by Melinda and Laurel.

People will enjoy seeing the stunning Manhattan townhouses used in the film, so elegantly furnished by production designer Santo Loquasto, even if they realize that few successful New York professionals could afford them these days. More disturbing is the feeling that the self-centeredness of the characters in “Melinda” rarely creates a genuine sense of comedy. The people in “Annie Hall,” “Broadway Danny Rose” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo” were no paragons, but there was always someone in those films who made a human gesture that allowed the audience to become emotionally involved.

The hasty critic is humbled, however, in reading a recent interview with journalist Kevin Canfield in which Mr. Allen concedes, “I don’t think I’ll make a great film because I don’t think it’s in me. ... I’m not as good as I was -- not as good as I thought I was.” This from a craftsman who has given us so much pleasure in more than 30 movies since 1959 and is already working on a new one. Woody Allen remains the rare figure in today’s cinema who eschews commercialism and hucksterism out of a desire to produce art. When he says he has produced nothing to equal the best of Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini or Renoir, we are reminded that he should be judged by the highest standards.

The Upside of Anger tries to combine romantic comedy and domestic melodrama and doesn’t quite jell in either area. Kevin Costner and Joan Allen, however, work well together as seemingly defeated characters who lurch uncertainly into an affair. Mr. Costner has his best part since “Bull Durham” as Denny Davies, a one-time baseball star for the Detroit Tigers who hosts a daytime radio show but refuses to talk about baseball. Too much drinking has left him a little paunchy, but boredom, friendliness and curiosity bring him to stare into the window of his neighbor Terry Wolfmeyer (Ms. Allen) just after she learns that her husband has suddenly left her -- apparently for a younger woman.

Denny shows a certain unkempt charm as he invades Terry’s home, even bringing her a drink as she comes out of the shower (“I didn’t look,” he explains). Attracted by this desperate but radiant woman, he is prepared to sit quietly and drink with Terry, who feels responsible for four almost grown daughters but unable to provide them with any guidance. Denny gets himself invited to dinner by the daughters, finds a job for one of them at his radio station -- where she immediately has an affair with the program director -- and gradually becomes part of the family.

The lead characters almost make the comedy work: Terry’s anger acts as a stimulus to the bored Denny, and their seesaw relationship is both tender and nutty. But the developing stories of the daughters contain too many undigested bits and pieces, including a wedding, a graduation and a ballet performance, all of which seem like material left over from a TV series.

Directed by Mike Binder, who also wrote the script, the movie follows its story through three years of changing seasons, all framed by the narration of the youngest daughter (Alicia Witt). Unfortunately, this device is accompanied at the end by an attempt to philosophize about the positive uses of anger, which only makes the film’s resolution seem more contrived.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail is

National Catholic Reporter, April 15, 2005

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