Woody Allen's latest, Melinda and Melinda, has a promising premise: In a familiar Allen scene where pretentious, cardigan-clad, arty folk philosophize over wine in public, two playwrights discuss a situation they've overheard. That situation belongs to Melinda, an unstable, travel-worn woman who interrupts an important dinner party by unexpectedly arriving at her friends' Upper East Side apartment. One playwright (Larry Pine) envisions Melinda's background as a tragedy, while the other (Wallace Shawn) invents a comedy. Director Allen, however, looks at both, and the film delineates the playwrights' respective takes, essentially making two films.
The only constant in the two stories is Melinda, the unannounced guest, endearingly played by Radha Mitchell. The tragic tale has Melinda, after a rocky marriage, reuniting with her friends from school--all of whom are now whiny, unfaithful, out-of-work artists with enormous loft apartments. The comic portion, on the other hand, features Hobie (Will Ferrell) falling in love with a kooky-boots Melinda, who in this reality is his downstairs neighbor. But while the tragic half has an almost implausible and laughably tragic conclusion, the supposedly comic aspect of the story is seldom funny. (Whether Allen intended this or not is unclear--but what is clear is that neither half of Melinda and Melinda feels like it should.)
Even with its sub-par script, Melinda and Melinda might have worked with a more capable, older cast. As it is, though, Melinda and Melinda's actors--including Chloë Sevigny and Jonny Lee Miller--simply isn't up to the tasks asked of them. Even Mitchell--who's predominantly convincing as the volatile minx--overdoes it when Melinda is pepped up on goofballs. Despite his compulsion to do a Woody Allen impression, Ferrell ends up being the best of the bunch.
The biggest tragedy is, of course, the immense squandered potential of such a clever story. Since he's been toying with comedies and tragedies for decades, Allen here has the perfect chance to capitalize on his proficiency in both genres. But while Melinda and Melinda is theoretically two Allen films for the price of one, its sum is far less than even one of Allen's past masterpieces.