For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them?
Woody Allen’s latest film finds him back in good form, almost like in the old days. Although not as theologically as interesting as Crimes and Misdemeanors, Melinda and Melinda is structured in a similar way, there being two contrasting plotlines exploring the question of whether life is a comedy or a tragedy. The question arises at a restaurant table where a group of writers are discussing their craft. Sy (Wallace Shawn) argues that life is comedy; Max (Larry Pine) that it is tragic or absurd. Each spins a story based on Melinda crashing a dinner party, but with very different results, according to each storyteller’s viewpoint. Supported by a superb cast, Radha Mitchell, in an acting tour de force, plays both Melindas.
Allen cuts back and forth between the two stories, so we viewers must pay close attention—fortunately Melinda sports very different hairstyles in the two segments. In the comic story Melinda lives in the same building as Hobie (Will Ferrell), an actor barely subsisting by working in TV commercials, and his filmmaking wife, Susan (Amanda Peet). Susan is entertaining a wealthy businessman who might be the key to financing her film. (An ardent feminist, she has given it the groundbreaking title of The Castration Sonata.) Susan eventually wants to fix Melinda up with a dentist, but Hobie, who finds himself falling for their neighbor, thinks of a dozen reasons why such a match would not work. When his wife betrays him, both in bed and by cutting him from her film, he is freed to pursue the longings of his heart.
In the tragic story Melinda has gone through a wrenching divorce from her doctor husband. Because she had engaged in an affair, he was able to gain the custody of their children and a court order preventing her from seeing them. Distraught, she announces, when she crashes the dinner party hosted by Laurel (Chloe Sevigny) and Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), that she has swallowed a large number of sleeping pills. She and Laurel had been college chums, but had lost contact as the ever restless Melinda had moved about the country, always burning her candles at both ends. Later she meets the suave, sensitive jazz musician Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and decides, with a name like that, that they must be destined for each other. But as Ellis, w3ho is first smitten with Melinda, gets to know Laurel, whose marriage to cheating husband Lee has caused her to lay aside her own considerable talents as a pianist, we wonder whether Melinda is destined to be cast aside again.
Will Farrell does a credible job as a stand-in for Mr. Allen, who, approaching 70, is no longer a believable pursuer of women in their 30’s, or even 40’s. Regarded by his classmates at Northwestern as a great King Lear—Hobie tells us that he made the part his own by walking with a slight limp—he has found work in Manhattan only by working in commercials—currently he is the voice of a tube of toothpaste—but he hopes his career will take off when he plays the therapist in Susan’s film. Both agree that he has the part nailed—he has added a limp to the character—but then, when pressured by her new backer to use a “name actor,” she drops him. While not as memorable as Allen’s earlier films, there are some funny lines, such as Susan and Hobie talking: She, “Of course we can communicate. Now can we not talk about it?” Or Hobie’s answer to a question of how he expresses himself: “Tidily winks and an occasional anxiety attack.”
Allen’s narrow world of upscale Manhattanites falling in and out of love and scheming and often failing in their quests for success and happiness is beautifully photographed. And he has not lost his ear for a great musical background, choosing big band music for the comedy side of the film, and Bartok and Stravinsky for the tragic. This is another of his films that shows up most other light films now showing as the pedestrian entertainments that they are.
1) Which Melinda do you prefer? Why? How is she and most of Woody Allen’s characters absorbed in themselves? Does Allen ever deal with issues of poverty or racism, so prevalent just a mile or two away from the Upper East Side where his characters live? (That he is aware of his limiting himself, see his delightful Stardust Memories.)
2) How are his characters and plots similar to those in his Crimes and Misdemeanors? Or in one of Shakespeare’s lighter works, such as A Midsummer’s Night Dream or As You Like It?
3) What has Laurel apparently done in regard to her musical talent after marrying Lee? (Note how this similar theme is handled in the Susan Sarandon film Safe Passage.) How is this, so often the case with women when they marry, now changing?
4) What do you think that the author of Ecclesiastes might say about these characters? Compare what one of the writers says at the end of the film—”We laugh because it masks our dread”—with the outlook of Koholeth. How is “The Preacher’s” conclusion about what one should do in life similar to what the two writers conclude about life?
5) How does the Christian concept of the cross and resurrection say about whether life is a comedy or a tragedy? Or, What do the events of Good Friday and Easter reveal?
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