Melinda And Melinda boasts a seemingly audacious concept that ceases to seem audacious once it becomes apparent that writer-director Woody Allen is still locked in the self-cannibalizing rut he's been stuck in for the past decade. Is the essence of life essentially comic or tragic? That's the lofty, post-grad question posited by a pair of kibitzing playwrights at the start of the film. To illustrate their arguments, the dramatic writer and the comedy writer each spin a separate story about a desperate, neurotic woman who shows up at the home of college friends, fleeing a life gone horribly awry. The two stories then unfold in parallel lines, with only the formidable Radha Mitchell doing double duty in both versions.
In the tragic version of Mitchell's tale, she falls in love with a dapper black musician (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who's also the crush object of her married chum Chloë Sevigny. In the more engaging comic half, Mitchell falls in love with a different dapper black musician, much to the chagrin of lovestruck actor Will Ferrell, who longs to abandon his dying marriage to filmmaker Amanda Peet, and instead hook up with their quirky, irresistible new houseguest. Ferrell plays the requisite Woody Allen character, a sputtering font of wisecracks and one-liners. As Kenneth Branagh can vouch, playing Woody Allen in a Woody Allen movie is a thankless task, but once the incongruity of watching a towering WASP like Ferrell uncannily channeling cinema's archetypal short, nebbishy Jew wears off, Ferrell's performance becomes a consistent delight. In a hermetic cinematic tomb haunted by echoes of Allen's past genius, Ferrell radiates live-wire electricity.
Though it's nice to see that Allen has finally written a substantial role for a black man, it would be even more refreshing if Ejiofor's accomplished, honey-tongued, yet ineffably haunted character didn't appear to have emerged fully formed from a bodice-ripping romance novel, right down to his name, "Ellis Moonsong." More disappointing still, Allen essentially uses his two love gods as plot points to be embraced or carelessly discarded as the story demands. As Melinda And Melinda is alternately a comedy and a drama, some tonal inconsistency is to be expected. But this being late-period Woody Allen, so is stilted dialogue, mannered performances, and a pronounced lack of narrative thrust. A second-rate comedy and a third-rate drama, Melinda And Melinda gives viewers two unsatisfying movies in one. The only genuine tragedy here involves a once-brilliant comedy writer plunging further into a seemingly permanent artistic freefall.