During a lively dinner conversation, two friends, one a dramatic playwright (Larry Pine) and the other a comedic one (Wallace Shawn), take up the challenge of interpreting one story in their own unique ways. The dramatist takes the tale of Melinda (Radha Mitchell) barging into a neighbor's dinner party in a near-suicidal state as the start to a long tragedy wherein marriages are broken (including Chloe Sevigny and Jonny Lee Miller), emotions scattered (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Melinda is left exactly where she began. The comedic tale features the same arrangement, but focuses on how Melinda's life-changing aura helps an unhappily married man (Will Ferrell) get out of his marriage with a cheating wife (Amanda Peet).
Legendary filmmaker Woody Allen has been in quite a rut lately. "Anything Else" (2003) found Allen at an all-time low, quality wise, so it comes as somewhat of a relief that "Melinda" returns Allen to more steady ground. Yet, this film still feels like a work completed with one eye closed. The jokes are there, but nothing is funny, the performances lack a spark that was never a question before, and Allen's trademarked exploration into the mental state of intellectual New Yorkers has never seemed this abrasive.
"Melinda" is divided into two films, and Allen balances the opposing temperatures of the script brilliantly. The trouble comes in Allen's attempt to wring something resembling life out of his script. For most of the film, "Melinda" sits limp, waiting for an actor or Woody himself to liven it up and give the material some authority. The dramatic side of "Melinda" moves slowly and carelessly, nary giving a chance for the characters to break free from their wine-party stereotypes and register emotionally like the argument requires. The comedic side is much easier to take, this being Allen's forte, yet the jokes never arrive like one would expect. In fact, "Melinda" barely records a laugh the entire running time. And that's a very strange experience for a Woody Allen film.
Equally as odd about "Melinda" is where the interesting performances come from. Seeing Will Ferrell onscreen, hamming it up Upper-West-Side style is a beautiful idea. But Ferrell is stuck doing a tepid Woody impression, which doesn't look right on Ferrell's hulking frame, and sounds even more ridiculous. Unexpectedly outplaying everyone is Chloe Sevigny, who finally gives her first full-throated adult performance with her role as an unhappy wife with a crush on Melinda's boyfriend. Sevigny finds the right wistful tone to play in, and her work here is outstanding.
In the crucial title role, Radha Mitchell is all wrong for the part. For the film to connect, Melinda needs to be a mixture of sexual predator and sympathetic lost soul. While Mitchell looks the part, her acting doesn't instill the character with anything as memorable as the script suggests. It's a disappointing performance, and it's the main reason why "Melinda and Melinda" doesn't penetrate the senses like a Woody Allen film should.
Filmfodder Grade: C