QUESTION: IS LIFE A COMEDY OR A tragedy? Answer: It depends on your medication. That, at least, is what the old (young) Woody Allen might have said. But Allen, who turns 70 this year, and whose filmmaking career includes dour dramas as well as his signature comedies of yearning, is beyond making jokes. He saves his wit for his films' structures. In Melinda and Melinda, he imagines the sudden appearance of a neurotic beauty at a dinner party and plays out two variations, one ending with a death, the other with a kiss. Which version does Allen believe? The one that gets the final scene--like a mixed review from a critic who saves his real opinion for the phrase that comes after the final "but."
In the tragic story is Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), a struggling actor, and his stylish wife Laurel (Chloë Sevigny). In the comic is Susan (Amanda Peet), a film director, and her actor husband Hobie (Will Ferrell). Shuttling between them as the cause or victim of many an infidelity is Melinda (Radha Mitchell), whose bruised allure men find irresistible--especially Hobie, the whiny Allen stand-in. One look at this wounded creature brings out both the beast and the veterinarian in him. He wants to ravage and save her.
Allen has assembled an attractive cast and given most of them clichés to inhabit. He has also stinted on inventiveness. Allen, in his Purple Rose of Cairo phase, might have allowed Hobie to step into the other story and rescue the tragic Melinda. The film's serious half could have been more powerful, the comic half lots funnier.
But. At its center, Melinda can boast a charismatic actress. Mitchell has often been cast as the excess-baggage wife (Phone Booth, Man on Fire, Finding Neverland). Here, channeling the neuroses of all preceding Allen heroines, she exudes a hurt and danger, an intensely sexual intelligence that plays off her patrician beauty. In her care, Melinda is part comic, part tragic, all magic. --By Richard Corliss