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No signs of life in another wooden Woody


In the halcyon days of the past, a new Woody Allen movie generated excitement in the hearts of countless viewers, especially hip urbanites, who believed the writer-director spoke to them in their language, addressing the seriocomic neuroses of their time and place.

A generation and some 30 films later, many of them simply repeating with small variations his previous plots, characters, subjects, and themes, a good deal of the thrill of anticipation has dissipated, along with the humor and relevance. Now one of the major interests lies in figuring out just who will play the Woody Allen character in the latest movie, (this time around it's Will Ferrell), which suggests the direction of his career.

His new movie, Melinda and Melinda, explores most of the familiar Allen territory, areas of intellectual and personal concern that provide the matter of virtually all his work. The picture opens in a chi-chi little Village bistro, with some writers discussing the vexing question of whether life, and therefore their plays, should be regarded as tragedy or comedy.

To illustrate their arguments, which rely on some profound banalities, they tell each other the story --- really two separate stories --- of a young woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) who unexpectedly enters the personal circles of two separate but similar groups of characters and proceeds to disrupt the lives of all the people she encounters.

In the allegedly tragic story, Melinda intrudes on a dinner party given by some old college friends, an actor named Lee (Jonny Lee Miller) and his wife Laurel (Chloë Sevigny), who hope to convince one of the guests, a director, to cast Lee in his new play. Melinda temporarily moves in with Lee and Laurel, who try to help her with her multitude of problems, which include a messy divorce, the loss of custody of her children, and even the murder of her lover.

No matter how grim the material, it's difficult to take it all terribly seriously, since that dark story alternates with a lighter one in which Melinda lives in the same building as another couple, a fledgling director, Louise (Stephanie Roth Haberle), and a struggling actor, Hobie (Will Ferrell). Melinda interrupts their dinner party, given to sweet-talk a producer into backing Louise's movie.

In the second plot, the presence of Melinda triggers an entirely different set of actions and emotions in the people she encounters; at the same time, the obvious parallels between the two distinct groups fuel the discussion back at the bistro.

In addition to the common situation of the intruder and the married couple, the two stories sometimes share material. In both, for example, Melinda meets and falls for a handsome black pianist-composer. In the allegedly tragic story he writes operas and talks a glib, pseudo-poetic line of gab guaranteed to seduce the purest and most recalcitrant female; in the comic version, he writes popular music and barely speaks a word. In the first story, the pianist ultimately betrays Melinda with her friend, while in the second, Melinda ultimately dumps the musician for the Woody Allen surrogate: go figure.

A considerable amount of sexual rearrangement takes place among the numerous characters in a relatively densely populated movie, especially in the comic version of Melinda's life. The various couplings lead to the very few laughs and some broadly farcical moments, most of them obvious and unoriginal. Allen resorts to some juvenile gags and some tired repetition of the sort of shtick he's done a hundred times before, most of them revolving around the plight of the neurotic, impotent weakling's efforts to attract the affections of Melinda.

Like just about all of Woody Allen's work, Melinda and Melinda restricts most of its action to the posh upper East Side of Manhattan, chiefly a series of wonderful apartments that only the wealthiest New Yorkers ever see, let alone inhabit, underlining the narrow and essentially unreal provincialism of his world view.

Along with the dark eatery where the characters in both stories return again and again, the locations provide a sense of unity and connection to the parallel versions of Melinda's life. Those locations, the fine lighting, and the terrific musical score provide a most pleasant surface polish to an otherwise dull set of people and circumstances.

The manner in which the two distinct stories at times run parallel, and at others overlap or merge into each other, with occasional interruptions from the two writers, constitutes just about the only really interesting element in the narrative. With the exception of Radha Mitchell, for whom the movie constitutes a terrific showpiece, the actors impart little vitality to the script, but mostly simply speak flat, wooden dialogue at each other with a minimum of conviction and almost no signs of actual life as we commonly live it, which aptly sums up the whole of Melinda and Melinda.

Melinda and Melinda (PG-13), starring Radha Mitchell, Will Ferrell, Chloë Sevigny, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jonny Lee Miller, Brooke Smith, Neil Pepe, Josh Brolin, Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn; written and directed by Woody Allen. The Little Theatres; Pittsford Plaza Cinema.