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Melinda and Melinda

Movies | Woody Allen may not have all the answers, but he does ask some of the right questions

Issue: "Terri Schiavo: In memoriam," April 9, 2005

No one is going to accuse Woody Allen of having the answers to life's important questions. At least no one who doesn't share the prolific director's pronounced set of neuroses, obsessions, and eccentricities. But at his best, Mr. Allen at least asks some of the right questions-and often in a way that few other filmmakers are willing to do (e.g., 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors).

Besides that, Mr. Allen can be pretty funny, at least according to some tastes. But lately, Mr. Allen hasn't been much of either-thoughtful or funny. His latest film, Melinda and Melinda (rated PG-13 for adult situations involving sexuality, and some substance material), offers some of the rewards of Mr. Allen's earlier films but isn't anywhere near as profound or as entertaining as the best of them.

The basic setup involves a dinner discussion between two playwrights, one who writes comedies, the other tragedies. The discussion turns to whether "life" is basically comic or tragic, with each playwright taking the side opposite to his craft. A third dinner guest introduces a true story he's heard, and each playwright begins to fill in the details of the tale, demonstrating that it can be taken in a direction either amusing or heartbreaking.

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Thus Melinda and Melinda. Both "Melindas" are played by Australian actress Radha Mitchell, who begins each story by bursting into a dinner party unexpectedly. In the tragic tale, it's a party hosted by "Park Avenue Princess" Chloë Sevigny and her out-of-work-actor husband Johnny Lee Miller; Ms. Mitchell's Melinda is a wayward old college friend. In the comic tale, the party is in the home of feminist filmmaker Amanda Peet and her also out-of-work-actor husband Will Ferrell; Melinda is a depressed neighbor who's taken too many sleeping pills.

Mr. Ferrell plays, essentially, Woody Allen-and does quite well as Mr. Allen's onscreen proxy. Unfortunately, most everyone else in the film also plays some variation of Woody Allen too, and as a result they're all pretty much insufferable and rarely come across as real people.

The value in Mr. Allen's films was once found in a willingness both to take seriously and ridicule varying philosophies and belief systems. Fully understood or not, ideas had consequences. But from the weakly deconstructed setup to an even weaker eat-drink-and-be-merry finale, not much about Melinda communicates a similar intellectual rigor.

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