A rainy night in Manhattan. The camera carries us beneath the awning of an ageless French bistro and into the warmth of its dining room. In another instant we're at a table, sharing after-dinner drinks and brainy conversation with a quartet of prosperous artists and intellectuals who are good-naturedly sparring over what is more true to the human condition, comedy or tragedy. Welcome, or should I say welcome back, to Woody's World. That is to say, the cocktail of romance and neurosis that is the New York City of Woody Allen's limited imagination. The episode under consideration here is Allen's latest film, Melinda and Melinda.
Woody Allen, of course, is that rarest of American filmmakers, an artist who, year after year, is able to make exactly the films he pleases, with no interference from the cloddish bean counters and mass marketers who control the rest of the movie business. Of all the filmmakers who came up during the last golden age of American cinema, the 1970s, he is the only one who has achieved total artistic independence. He is, as Francis Ford Coppola himself has admitted, our only true auteur.
The trouble with this is that if Woody Allen was under the thumb of some Hollywood MBA who kept insisting that he make another "Woody Allen movie," it's hard to imagine the movies Woody Allen actually makes being any more predictable than they have become over the past 20 years or so. And yes, they might even be funnier.
So Melinda and Melinda is another variation on the familiar Allen theme that love shared by human beings may not amount to much in a pretty hostile world, but it's all we've got. This time around, though, Allen throws us a hanging curve ball by following through on his set-up and presenting his story in alternating keys - one tragic and one comic.
In both versions, Melinda (played brilliantly throughout in a star turn by Radha Mitchell) is a strung-out woman who arrives unexpectedly at a dinner party. The stories of how Melinda subsequently tries to put her life back together, with both tragic and comic results, dramatize the table talk taking place in the opening scene.
But while Melinda's tale of woe in the dark side of this equation is certainly long on nastiness, self-indulgence and betrayal, it's a stretch to say that Melinda is a heroine, or that what happens to her is truly tragic.
As for the comic side, we get Will Ferrell trying his best to not blush as he plays Woody Allen, delivering lines virtually lifted from such old friends as Play It Again, Sam and Annie Hall. He gets the girl in the end, of course. Mercifully, Ferrell and Mitchell appear to be of roughly the same generation.
All of which is not to say that Melinda and Melinda is a bad film. Thanks to Mitchell and the collective intelligence of a supporting ensemble that includes Amanda Peet, Chloe Sevigny and Wallace Shawn, not to mention Santo Loquasto's gorgeous production design, it has its moments. One wishes, though, that America's auteur could find more to do with his independence than this exercise that seems more fit for a seminar than the screen.