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Melinda and Melinda

No one has ever accused Woody Allen of writing (or talking or thinking) like the average American — but at least he's usually able to make a certain type of dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker sound somewhat authentic. Not so in Melinda and Melinda (2005), a stilted, self-aware film in which the characters seem to be competing to see who can be the most shallow and unsympathetic. Spun out of a debate between a pair of playwrights trying to decide whether life is essentially comic or tragic, Melinda is actually two movies in one. Both have the same starting point — a woman shows up unannounced during a Manhattan dinner party — but take different directions from there. In the tragic version, Melinda (Radha Mitchell) is a neurotic mess who's screwed up her life so badly that her posh Upper East Side childhood friends, Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) and Cassie (Brooke Smith) don't really know what to do with her, other than go shopping and try to set her up with a nice, eligible man. Meanwhile, on the comic flip side, Melinda (still Mitchell) retains a messy past, but nothing so terrible that she can't laugh it off over a drink with her married neighbors, aspiring filmmaker Susan (Amanda Peet) and underemployed actor Hobie (Will Ferrell, standing in for Allen as the romantic comedy hero). The two versions of Melinda's story share certain elements — dissatisfied women married to out-of-work thespians, blind dates with dentists, trips to the racetrack, meals in candlelit bistros — but they end up in very different places. The comic version feels like a fairly typical Allen film, and despite the fact that gangly, boyish Ferrell is probably the least-convincing Allen substitute yet (it isn't until he starts rambling about his neuroses that you realize he's even in that role), on its own it might have been entertaining enough, if rather predictable. But the tragic Melinda is almost unbearable. None of the characters, aside from Chiwetel Ejiofor's soulful musician, Ellis, elicit any sympathy to speak of, and most of them are downright unlikable. Sevigny is stiff and flat as Laurel, and Mitchell is too twitchy and melodramatic as Melinda. And the lines Allen gives his "dramatic" characters are artificial at best — when Smith's character tries to convince Melinda to come to a dinner party, she promises to "invite a number of nice guests." Who talks like that? That's a minor example, but as the stilted nature of the script gradually overtakes tragic Melinda's life, it's hard to really care what happens to her. At least in the comic version, no one has to pretend to be taking Allen's writing and directing quirks quite so seriously. Fox's extras-free, two-sided Melinda and Melinda DVD offers the film in both anamorphic (1.85:1) and full-screen transfers. Audio options include English, Spanish, and French mono tracks, plus English and Spanish subtitles. No extras, keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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