Saturday, February 27, 2010

There Is No One Definitive Essence

Going over the latter part of Woody Allen’s career can be problematic a good amount of the time. Let’s face it, he doesn’t always make it easy for those of us who dutifully turn up on each opening weekend, particularly when it feels like he just shot the first draft of whatever emerged from his typewriter. When this happens it’s hard not to think that he didn’t bother to take the time to really try to bring out the potential in whatever the particular film is. And yet, we still faithfully go, hoping for some latter day triumph from the guy while at the same time knowing deep down that we’re not going to get another ANNIE HALL or MANHATTAN or PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO. The terrific VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA from 2008 probably comes closest to such a thing and I had a perfectly enjoyable time seeing WHATEVER WORKS on my birthday last year. But hey, when I was a kid I walked in a blizzard to see HANNAH AND HER SISTERS on opening day (what can I say, I was a weird kid) and I can’t help it, I still look forward to every single new film, hoping for the very best, knowing that probably won’t be the case. See, while I prefer some over others and a couple of times I’ve felt a big letdown (that first draft feel was particularly apparent in CASSANDRA’S DREAM) I’m very aware that this isn’t going to go on forever. And if we really stop to examine what he’s doing in a few of these films that he’s made recently it becomes clear that there are riches to be dug up. Even Quentin Tarantino told the LA Weekly last year when he was mentioned, “I think he’s in a renaissance, except for MELINDA AND MELINDA.” I’m glad that somebody out there noticed and, honestly, I don’t even think that MELINDA AND MELINDA, released in the U.S. in March 2005, is the one to single out as some sort of digression. That’s not to say I don’t know where Tarantino is coming from in making the statement. The film has its pleasures but it’s also fairly representative of how his work from the past decade can be frustrating while still containing some substantial rewards.

Four friends are out at dinner in New York during a rainstorm arguing over the eternal question of whether life is inherently funny or tragic. One of them tells a story, which we don’t hear, to ask which one they think it is and two of them, both playwrights, offer up their own version—interestingly the one who argues that life is inherently tragic sees it as a romantic comedy and the one who sees life as comic comes up with a tragedy (these four people combined can be seen as Woody making these arguments in his own head). The serious version of the story is about a woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) who barges in on a dinner part being thrown by old friend Laurel (Chloë Sevigny) and her husband, struggling actor Lee (Jonny Lee Miller). Though Melinda has gone through some serious troubles in her past Laurel attempts to find a man to set her up with but when she meets piano player Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejifor) on her own, both women wind up attracted to him. The comic version is about another woman named Melinda (also Mitchell) who stumbles into a dinner party being thrown by struggling actor Hobie (Will Ferrell) and his director wife Susan (Amanda Peet) who takes on the task of trying to set Melinda up with somebody even while Hobie secretly falls in love with her. Certain specific themes and ideas recur from one story to the other, some more subtle than others.

The issue of how Woody Allen’s films have teetered between the serious and the comical has long been something he’s dealt with. As good as something like the underappreciated ANOTHER WOMAN might be, it’s hard not to acknowledge that some of his richest work has been the ones where he’s succeeded in combining the two. As the years went on towards titles like CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and HUSBANDS AND WIVES as a director he seemed to get more confident in attempting such clashes of tone. The basic idea of MELINDA AND MELINDA feels almost like it could be some grand ultimate statement on his part of what the man as writer wants to say about his own creativity best exemplified when Wallace Shawn, in coming up with the humorous tale, offers, “He’s despondent, he’s desperate, he’s suicidal. All the comic elements are in place.” It makes it all the more unfortunate how the final film winds up feeling a little too much like just another toss-off, one that Woody actually did come up with while sitting at dinner with people and it diminishes the final result. Both stories we get come off as kind of half-baked and though they both do get better as they go along (the serious section has a particularly effective feel of lives unfulfilled that I wish had been developed more) too much of it comes off as stilted, too many of the characters are ultimately not all that compelling. These people inhabit a world of plays, classical music and dreams of vacation houses in the Hamptons that feels a little too insular, locked inside of Woody’s head and even when they manage to break out it’s not always a good thing--when we finally get to hear the serious Melinda’s full backstory I lose all sympathy or any other kind of interest I had in her and after this it makes every time she’s told by her friends what a catch she is ring hollow.

There are laughs here and there but very often the jokes, even the ones that work, seem to come from another time like the all-female film Peet’s character is making titled THE CASTRATION SONATA and a disparaging mention of an actor taking a job in a deodorant commercial just seems very 1974. Not to mention the occasional out-of-time phrases we hear like a reference to placing an ad in the personals or somebody mentioning their “laundress”, things that keep the story far away from the decade the movie has been made in. Also, while I can believe that Chloe Sevigny, Radha Mitchell and Brooke Smith are friends, they still don’t look like they’re all the same age. On the other hand, Woody seems to have realized that people are now using cell phones and there’s even a reference to prozac, so there’s a few points in his favor. The inconsistency of the film means that such little things are constantly standing out but then it also will surprise with a number of bracingly well done moments where the elements really do come together-there’s a strikingly intimate scene in a dark bistro between Sevigny and Ejifor that stands out. Credit for much of this could possibly go to the one and only Vilmos Zsigmond who served as D.P., presenting a crisp looking New York all throughout (even if it is an anachronistic, stylized New York that exists only as Woody Allen sees it) and such moments are there if you look for them. Maybe because of the cinematographer’s involvement the film has a slightly stronger visual style, without making a big deal about it, than a few other Woody films from recent years in which he would just plop the camera down and let the actors play out the scene. The film’s visual strength combined with how the two different stories cleverly wind up complimenting each other is much of the reason why it ultimately holds together as well as it does. The similarities and differences between both versions, such as the appearance of a lamp to rub, allows for more resonance on repeated viewings and gives us the chance to pay more attention to how they mirror each other—the running gag of Ferrell’s character always playing parts “with a limp” is silly, I’ll admit that, but it does have a certain thematic resonance.

If there is any particular problem with the film that goes beyond anything else, it’s that the most purely enjoyable part of it is the framing device with the friends played by Larry Pine, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Neil Pepe and, best of all, Wallace Shawn, each of them more likable than anyone else in the entire movie. Yes, it feels like they just walked over from a taping of The Dick Cavett Show in the early 70s but seeing this movie again for the first time in a few years I still find myself wishing I could sit down to join the four of them for dinner and coffee. They seem like they’d be interesting, fun people to talk with and it’s unfortunate that the film doesn’t spend more time with them (the comics in BROADWAY DANNY ROSE got more screen time), maybe even follow them into their own movie when this one ends while we’re at it.

Some of the film's issues extend to the casting, though both halves contain a variety of strong performances. Radha Mitchell has some excellent moments in both guises but the serious half is hampered by a shaky accent during some particularly serious moments and the lighter version of her character doesn’t play as quirky as maybe she could have been, not quite seeming worth building a movie (or even half a movie) around. Will Ferrell comes off as likable but at times seems unsure of how to play things at times in what is pretty much the Woody role but his proudly stating that he got a voiceover job followed by the embarrassing admission, “It’s the voice of a toothpaste” is a cute moment. Apparently Winona Ryder and Robert Downey Jr., Woody’s first choices for the roles, didn’t work out due to insurance issues which is a shame because it sounds like that could have been a much stronger movie, one that might not have felt so insular. The supporting cast contains several considerably stronger performances—Sevigny attacks the over annunciated phrases that have been scripted for her full-on, managing to make an ultimately unpleasant character always somehow compelling (honest admission: I sometimes find Sevigny fascinating and Allen uses the actress very well here, with her close-ups in the bistro scene particularly beguiling). Likewise, Ejifor takes his awkwardly scripted character from “Harlem, U.S.A.” and gives him an inner life that goes beyond his dialogue maybe more than anyone else here, making him someone always engaging to watch. Amanda Peet spars with Ferrell in an enjoyable way (“Of course we communicate. Now can we not talk about it?”), Josh Brolin gets a few funny moments bouncing on a trampoline as a rich dentist who one Melinda gets set up with and EYES WIDE SHUT’s Vinessa Shaw does a lot with her tiny role as a gorgeous investment counselor who once posed for Playboy (“Hard to believe that a Republican could be that sexual”) that Ferrell goes on a disastrous date with--based on her few minutes here, somebody needs to cast Shaw in a screwball comedy and fast. There’s some odd waste too-- Steve Carell, pre-THE OFFICE and THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN turns up in a few small scenes as Ferrell’s best friend to no effect at all—it’s like he was cast as a favor to Ferrell with Woody never realizing who he had in his movie. There is some nice use of music throughout from the expected standards but also some particularly effective use of Bartok as well as the way the soundtrack from THE BLACK CAT plays as we see Vinessa Shaw for the first time.

Fine, I admit it. I don’t mind this film. At its best, I even like it quite a bit. I’m sitting here now, watching some of it again and enjoying it just fine. True, it’s not MANHATTAN which is one of those films I could sit down and watch at a moment’s notice but when it works MELINDA AND MELINDA is a rewarding look at the concept of just what a story is and why we choose to approach telling one in a certain way, whether it’s inherently funny or serious. Or both. It’s not everything it could be but it doesn’t deserve easy dismissal either. And, to say it once again, there’s something fortunate about getting to live in a time when new Woody Allen movies still come out. We won’t always be that lucky.


Unknown said...

I actually quite like this film and it's probably my fave of Allen's from the past decade. The way I look at his films is like this:watching them is like visiting an old friend. You pretty much know what you’re going to get: the plain opening credits always done in the same font with big band or jazz music playing and the cast presented in alphabetical order. Prior to MELINDA AND MELINDA, the heart has been missing from his films. And with this one, he seemed to have found it again. The stories feel more natural and his dialogue flows with an ease and rhythm that had been absent for some time.

For me the dramatic story isn’t as interesting as the comedic one as none of the characters are all that engaging or relatable – not that is essential but it pales in comparison to the much warmer and interesting comedic story. It doesn’t hurt that the comedic story features a surprisingly restrained Will Ferrell as this film’s Woody Allen surrogate. He nails the neurotic, uptight intellectual who proves to be a better cook then an actor. Ferrell successfully tones down his usual manic schtick for a more fully realized character.

I also have to say that I'm a big fan of Radha Mitchell which is probably why this film has a soft spot in my heart. She is generally known for her genre fare (PITCH BLACK, ROGUE) so it was great to see her in a Woody Allen film, getting to stretch as an actress.

I really can't argue with the flaws of the film that you pointed out so well but I guess they pale in comparison to my enjoyment of this film. And I agree with you about the dinner scenes that frame the film. I wish Allen would've constructed a bonus film just focusing on these characters, like a semi-sequel to MY DINNER WITH ANDRE or something...

Joe Valdez said...

Fine article, Peel. You reminded me of my own intense Woody period in the mid-1990s when I actually went to see Mighty Aphrodite and Everyone Says I Love You at a theater, paying money.

Woody Allen is a filmmaker whose pictures never change. The viewer is the one who changes over the years and can have a completely different experience watching Sleeper, Manhattan, Husbands and Wives or Anything Else in their 20s, 40s or 60s.

christian said...

I think Woody is our Bergman and I always nod whenever somebody writes another "Woody is over piece" that he gets his biggest hit with MATCH POINT and VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA. His scripts are somewhat first-draftish these days but we should have such a first draft. I too used to love the opening day of an Allen film, which HANNAH AND HER SISTERS was the first. Then going over to Tower...those were the days!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thanks very much for all your great comments. It seems like you like this one a little better than I do and that's great. I definitely enjoyed revisiting it this time, it really flowed together much better than a few other of his films during this period. It might very well be the return of a certain kind of heart and warmth.


I saw both of those on opening weekend! And I still go as soon as I can when a new one opens to this day. When those credits first come up it just puts a smile on my face. And what you said about how his films change as you grow is very true. Very often they get richer, deeper and, yes, funnier.


You're very right when you say that we should all have such first drafts. Of course, a few times have frustrated me in that sense more than others but I've always avoided leaping from that to some kind of "Woody's over!" response. That sort of thinking is just pointless. I remember feeling such pleasure when I saw VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA for the first time...there's always the chance that'll happen once again.