Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Melinda and Melinda

I’m not a Woody Allen aficionado. In fact, I’ve only seen a couple of his movies, and those a very long time ago. That said, after watching Melinda and Melinda the other day, I feel I now “get” Woody Allen, or at least I have a firmer understanding of what he does as a filmmaker. Melinda and Melinda, which to many signals a return to the Woody of the past, seems to me fairly representative of his work.

For instance, I now feel I can discuss things that are Allenesque: mid-angle shots that encourage the audience to notice the details of elaborately decorated Manhattan apartments, highly intellectual dialogue featuring intense monologues, an Allenesque rambling hero, and beautiful New York shown as never before (during one scene, a trash can is prominent center screen, with a white trash bag lining the can—come on, where in New York does one find a trash can with a liner? Clearly a dreamland New York).

The “trick” of this film is that Allen has at once constructed a comedy and a tragedy. The movie opens with two writers at dinner, each pitching a story based on the same premise: a distraught woman interrupts a dinner party and forever changes the lives of those she meets. As they offer their different takes on the premise, each writer professes an allegiance to a comedic or tragic worldview. Allen and his fabulous editor, Alisa Lepselter, construct a tangled web of two plotlines that intersect in various ways: echoing lines of dialogue, copying plot devices, and sharing a main character.

The two plot lines are not confusing when watching the movie; Melinda’s hair is curly in the tragedy and straight in the comedy, so you see it is perfectly clear which story Allen is telling. Trying to recount the story afterwards, however, has caused me some distress. Yet confusion itself is part of the point: comedy and tragedy overlap, intersect, and even change hands. Taking a less academic stance, the interplay between the two storytelling approaches simply makes for fun movie watching.

One character appears in both storylines: Melinda, the woman who interrupts dinner, portrayed by Radha Mitchell. Mitchell is a relative unknown, despite a long list of films to her credit. Most obvious to me was her recent stint as Mrs. Barrie in Finding Neverland, in which her coldness and gentility well suited that character. Here she plays the wild child: the girl men used to love for her crazy abandon, but now her wildness has left her alone, despondent, and completely lost.

Mitchell’s Melinda is not particularly likeable, but when she speaks Allen’s detailed and articulate monologues, I could not help but be seduced, almost trance-like, by her hazy gaze and passionate smoking. Mitchell exudes a fragility that makes her vulnerable but also elusive. This aspect of always being somehow out of reach causes her Melinda, especially the tragic Melinda, to be less sympathetic.

None of the female characters are particularly likeable, actually. In the tragedy storyline, Melinda’s two friends reek of snobbery and empty values (but boy are they well dressed). The pathetic wallflower Laurel, played by Chloe Sevigny, who has given up her own talent to be known as the girl who snagged the most popular boy in school (he’s a drunk lethario, of course), ends up stealing Melinda’s relatively well-adjusted (but for the fact that he is dating Melinda) boyfriend.

I might perhaps give Laurel the benefit of the doubt on the whole “is she trying to steal her friend’s boyfriend” thing but for the fact that Allen never gives her the benefit of the doubt. As other friend Cassie (Brooke Smith) notes, Laurel has every intention of going through with her affair, Melinda or no. Though she seeks advice from Cassie, Laurel has made up her mind long before. Seems a waste of an opportunity to examine how desire, guilt, and friendship interplay. In a film all about overlapping and parallel structure, this seems a more egregious oversight. Instead, Allen opts for the easier (and harsher) silent betrayal. It doesn’t help that Sevigny’s performance is rather uninspired. She lacks energy, charm, and commitment.

A brief note about Cassie, who by all respects is the most stable and wise of the three friends. Her husband repeatedly calls her fat, though in fact she is at least six months pregnant. She takes this as a matter of course. Does no one in a Woody Allen movie have higher expectations of marriage than this sort of cruelty? And what does it mean that Cassie is soon to be a mother? Her worldview seems rather unaffected by her pregnancy, making her physical condition merely a device to allow her husband to be mean.

The comedic plotline affirms the value of love but also in the process destroys a poorly suited marriage. Will Ferrell’s Hobie fears only that he will hurt his wife if he seeks a divorce. So when he finds his wife in bed with her film producer, they happily agree to end the marriage. Interesting note: the film’s trailer includes a scene of Hobie finding her in flagrante delicto, indicating that this scene does not even qualify as a reveal, therefore it doesn’t need to be kept secret. Marital infidelity is a matter of course, you see.

Be it comedy or tragedy, marriage doesn’t come off too well in the movie. A poorly suited marriage not only can be ended but in fact should be ended. Does Allen believe that marriage dooms love to end in despair? Is it the institution itself? Society’s expectations? The mundane routine of daily life? Is passion the only sort of love worth seeking? Does fidelity never offer its own reward but instead merely cuckold the faithful?

One cannot watch a Woody Allen film without noting the absolute extravagance of the characters’ lives. They live in beautiful apartments in Manhattan and throw elegant dinner parties. Yet they work as struggling actors, part-time teachers, and assistant directors—how do they afford this luxury? No wonder they all sit around and worry about their love lives all the time—clearly they have no need to worry about money like the rest of us poor folk.

The dialogue in these films is heightened, almost prosaic. Characters will speak lines like “I’m feeling rather bemused at the moment.” A husband will announce to his wife that he has lost his job because he was drunk at work, and her response is the carefully measured and unimpassioned, “I’m very disappointed and angry right now. Good bye.” Sure, these are the kind of characters who would regularly visit a therapist, but even then would they be this self-aware? Allen’s characters live in a world beyond the problems of ordinary life: they operate at a state of overt or deeply hidden panic.

Perhaps Allen does not want to comment on ordinary life but instead plays out these comedic dramas against a background of intended hyper-elegance. In creating a world of caricature and stereotypes, Allen avoids the demands of realism and can play to extremes. We are not supposed to watch this movie and recognize real life. Rather, consider Allen’s work as a sort of period piece: stylized, poetic, character-driven.

Then when Allen creates a moment of real feeling amidst the chaos—as when Melinda has been wrestled to the ground by her adulterous boyfriend—her look of detached pain hits home. Suddenly I suspected that Melinda, who plays the victim throughout the film, might actually be a victim. For she acts with sincerity in all that she does. She refuses to play the same games as her friends, play acting happiness and career satisfaction. So Melinda is sacrificed for threatening the delicate balance of this false but beautiful world. It is these moments that make the film worth it, moments of sincerity amidst all the faux honesty and plastic luxury.


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