It's not that Melinda and Melinda, a self-conscious examination of comedy vs. tragedy, is such a bad film. It's that it's merely all right -- very high-concept and on its way to interesting, but never there. Melinda hinges on an idea that, though not new, could have sprung to life; instead, the film smolders beneath the weight of its constant, superficial philosophizing. And the fault, it seems, is in the writing. Where we could have had character, we get author, imposing his personality on ciphers who lack the definition to fend it off. And where we could have had depth, we have posturing. Is it laziness? Seems more like haste.
Allen opens his film in a café, with two writers (played by Larry Pine and Wallace Shawn) discussing a story one of them has heard. Each has a different take on how the events of that story might play out. We never hear the tale; instead, we watch as the two versions are intermittently dramatized, one a tragedy and the other a comedy (or so we are told; one is closer to melodrama and the other to farce). In other words, it's not the same series of events evaluated by two different people; it's two different writers, writing two different versions of a story with some shared elements. Of course a writer with a tragic bent will write a tragedy and a comedian a comedy: What is so revelatory about that? Far more interesting would have been an examination of the exact same story, along with a look at what it is about the writers that makes them write as they do.
As it is, here's what we get: Radha Mitchell (Finding Neverland, High Art) plays Melinda, a woman who's had a rough time. The only actor (and character) who spans both plots, she appears in the tragedy as an alcoholic, pill-addicted bundle of nerves who, in a turn that the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce won't be bragging about anytime soon, flees our fair city after a conglomeration of tragedies: a desperate affair, loss of custody of her children, a drug-addicted rage resulting in the shooting of her husband and jail time. In New York, she lands at the home of struggling actor Lee (Jonny Lee Miller) and New York socialite Laurel (Chloë Sevigny), who try (sort of) to help her get back on her feet. When Melinda meets Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a silky piano player and composer who has been relieved of both his masculinity and his ethnicity by the script, things begin to pick up. But not for long.
In the comedy, Melinda is more of a hapless, good-natured, humorously suicidal single girl, the kind who screams in the hallway of her apartment building when she discovers a tick on her leg. In this version, she lands at the apartment of film director Susan (Amanda Peet) and out-of-work actor Hobie (Will Ferrell), a couple whose marriage has lost its spark. While Susan seeks solace in the arms of an extremely minor character, Hobie -- the requisite Woody Allen surrogate, doing bitter inferiority and nebbishy self-deprecation -- falls for Melinda. Because he has neither wealth nor fame to recommend him, he must rely on character, and that, by the lights of a Woody Allen film, is always a tough row to hoe. Nevertheless, a few sight gags later, Hobie gets his girl.
The best thing about Melinda and Melinda is Radha Mitchell. To differentiate between plots, the film relies heavily on her hair (frizz for tragedy, bob for comedy), but it needn't have. Mitchell does a masterful job of creating two separate characters all on her own, through body language and tone of voice. True, the comedic version isn't terribly nuanced, and there's not much energy between her and Will Ferrell, but that's the script's fault, not Mitchell's.
Perhaps Melinda and Melinda would be more successful if either story (and, preferably, both) were more fully baked. So much of what happens in both plots feels staged, and also familiar, if only because we've heard nearly identical lines issue from the mouths of other Allen creations. (Witness: "Melinda had a reputation for being post-modern in bed.") Year after year, film after film, Allen isn't deepening his craft. Perhaps if he spent more than a month on a script and gave his actors more than a couple of takes, he'd come up with something truly memorable.