Melinda times two

Film When I reviewed Woody Allen's last film, Anything Else, it was on the defensive. That film had taken a lot of criticism for being identikit Woody Allen, marginalised from reality. I loved that film for both those reasons. I love Melinda and Melinda in the same way, and ironically it seems to be playing those criticisms as strengths.

Which is why it's odd that it's being presented as a return to form, particularly because most of the elements are so similar to his other films. Even the music over the titles has been heard a few times before in earlier films. It has the discussion/storytelling format of Broadway Danny Rose and the mixture of comedy and tragedy of something like Crimes and Misdemeanors. It's still set in affluant Manhatten in which people own houses in the Hamptons and will order out for Chinese food if an already expensive meal is ruined.

I think what makes it a more watchable and probably accessible film is that it feels like a richer experience. The central conceit, of a story being told from a tragic or comic perspective from an initial stimulus is a discussion of the essence of drama. That discussion occurs throughout the film as the two stories echo each other, moments being mentioned or redescribed in differing configurations, with suicide played in the darkness and light in equal measure. It gives the piece a background bigger than the characters and their situations.

But there is also a depth and breadth in the cast. As both Melindas Radha Mitchell gives a towering performance. Unlike Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors (a spiritually similar film) who was called upon to play essentially the same character twice, here Mitchell has to think herself into two spaces completely. Each Melinda, because of their place in the comedy and tragedy sections, has a different life experience and so reactions are going to be wildly different. The tragic Melinda feels to an extent like Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives; comic Melinda is more loveable though, a bit Meg Ryan. Compellingly you fall for both in different ways.

But this is an ensemble piece though, and what's very interesting is that the whole cast isn't replicated through both stories, Mitchell is the only common thread. This means Allen's also played to the strengths of casting for comedy and tragedy. I've never previously loved Will Ferrell, but here, possibly because he's effective Woody avator he's actually very effective and heartbreaking. Amanda Peet, who I've always known is a wickedly great actress repeats the excellent work she's done in things like Two Ninas. On the tragic side, if Johnny Lee Miller is a bitter mannered with his best attempt at an American accent, Chloƫ Sevigny continues her consistent work and Chiwetel Ejiofor shows once more that he's going to be a very big star.

You what I think makes this seem like a better film? Woody's started editing again. Lately, the director has been relying on oners with steadycam and handheld, with the characters playing within a space. That has the effect of making things seem very theatrical, and also reduces the facility for subtlety. Here, there are many more close ups and frequently the frame will hang on a face giving the actor room to tell a story. There is also a lot less conspicuous improvisation. In only a couple of scenes can we tell that people are throwing ideas in and hoping they stick. Everything feels planned giving this film a rhythm which has been lacking. There are rumours that this could be Allen's last New York film for a while, so it's lovely that Melinda and Melinda looks so amazing, with the photography of Vilmos Zsigmond (who also impressed on Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl) finding yet more new ways of evoking the city.

Woody's next film, Match Point has been made in London, with his next being set there as well. That should give him a shot in the arm creatively. But frankly on the basis of this I don't think he needs it.

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