One of the reasons that I enjoy Melinda and Melinda so much is that I originally found it to be something of a self-revelatory watch. If you were to ask me about my general outlook, I would probably place myself in the category of “glass half empty” (As Alvy Singer said, “I have a pessimistic view of life. You should know this about me if we are going to go out”). Amazingly though when I watch this film it is the comedic half (in a film relating the same story through both a tragic (Story 1) and comic (Story 2) lens) that my heart goes out to.
In fact I’ve always found it a strange experience watching Woody Allen’s serious films like Interiors or Another Woman. I say this not by way of criticism: I usually enjoy them. It’s just that they are always accompanied by a strange sense of expectation. I watch them and await punchlines that then (obviously) don’t come.
For me Allen is at his strongest when he blends both of the traits that he separates out so successfully in Melinda and Melinda. Ultimately both these elements of his writing brought together are more true to life, where all of us stumble across unlikely comedic moments, even in the most serious of situations.
It’s delightful in Melinda and Melinda to see Allen, a master of human observation and identifying foibles, separating the two elements out to showcase the double-edged nature of most life circumstances. One of the most famous of Woody Allen’s lines comes with Alan Alda’s definition of comedy in Crimes and Misdemeanours (incidentally one of my favourite characters in his films) when he proclaims that the secret to comedy is “Tragedy plus Time”.
There is a truth to this despite the mocking nature the director places behind Alda’s depiction. In Melinda and Melinda, Allen shows us a different take on the concept by highlighting that the ingredients for both comedy and tragedy are usually present at the very onset of a situation.
The central performance in Melinda and Melinda is that of Radha Mitchell who successfully switches between the “Tragic Melinda” (Story 1) and the “Comedic Melinda” (Story 2) so successfully that the first few times I watched the film I wasn’t entirely sure that the Melinda characters were played by one and the same actress. Both aspects of the film follow a similar narrative trajectory told with a comedic or tragic tone; both styles are intertwined, appearing sequentially while the same general story is portrayed until its conclusion.
Although Radha Mitchell plays Melinda in both elements, the cast working around the “Tragic” and “Comedic” versions of the story are otherwise distinct. The Tragic tale has within it some romantic elements (primarily via the character of Ellis Moonshine), and the usual degree of Woody Allen escapism when it comes to the financial circumstances of the characters (see my previous “traits of Woody’s films” post).
The tale from this perspective is accompanied by the discordant music of Bach and Bartok and progresses from Melinda’s heartrending backstory to a moving conclusion and the hurt of life-long friend Laurel’s (Chloe Svenigy) betrayal of Melinda with Ellis.
As I mentioned in opening however it is the comedic element of the film that fully wins me over. This is because at its core there is a truly wonderful chemistry between the cast in these segments.
The standout performance for me comes from Will Ferrell as Hobie. Ferrell is an actor I don’t always like but who is just perfect in the “Woody Allen” role here; it is sad that he has never been able to reprise this type of role in any other Allen films.
He lives with his ambitious wife played by Amanda Peet, who is also perfect for the role of “unsympathetic wife”. His sideman is Steve Carell who picks up the “friend of the protagonist” role that serves as the vehicle for Will Ferrell’s (Allen’s) amusing observations on life. Mitchell is also hilarious in her scenes with Ferrell and there is such delightful interaction between the two, including some hilarious exchanges at the race track.
My two favourite scenes take place in the comedic side of the film. The first is the “trip to the beach” section where Ferrell and Peet’s characters set up Melinda with Josh Brolin’s sleazy Greg Earlinger. It’s almost an exact replica of a scene from 1995’s The Mighty Aphrodite when Woody Allen and Helena Bonham Carter are taken on a similar trip to the beach.
Here the Ferrell-Allen character is out of his comfort zone to a delicious extent, while his partner Peet relishes the nouveau riche luxury of the host’s beach house (which symbolises so much more than a beach house) and the host himself. For its image of Josh Brolin on a trampoline this scene is worth every penny.
The second scene comes much later in the film and is rich in comedy. It centres on Ferrell’s post-Peet date with Stacey Fox, a rampant Right Wing enthusiast in all senses (“I had no idea a Republican could be so sexy!”). Cue lots of hilarious jokes about relationship-compatibility between Republicans and Democrats which harks back to Allen’s political material from the 1970s.
Hobie: I think it’d be only fair to tell you I’m a Liberal.
Stacey: Oh. Are you talking politically or in the bedroom?
Hobie: I was talking politically…in the bedroom I’m a left-wing liberal!
This scene comes very late in the film, just before Ferrell and Mitchell’s characters finally come together as fate determined. It is a beautiful little sequence with wit and humour and is an apt reminder of how politically acerbic Allen can be (no op-ed pieces in The New York Times for our Woody).
Melinda and Melinda is a little talked about gem that has become somewhat overlooked given Allen’s prolific output. Hopefully some of you will give it a watch on foot of this post. Maybe you’ll find your hidden light-hearted side just like me.