The restaurant is cozy, the camera close, and the conversation vintage Woody Allen. Flanked by a couple of other folks, two friends—Max (Larry Pine) and Sy (Wallace Shawn)—argue earnestly over the “essence of life.” Is it comic or tragic? Ah yes. Just the sort of reductive question that seems profound for Allen’s well-heeled Manhattanites, it provides the structural trick for Melinda and Melinda, that is, the story of the much beset titular protagonist (hardworking Radha Mitchell), who appears in two stories that run parallel and intertwine in ways that highlight generic differences and similarities.
Each artist imagines his girl arriving unannounced, at the apartment of a friend during a dinner party. The first Melinda stumbles in out of the rain, looking bedraggled, interrupting a downtown soiree thrown by her college friends, aspiring/self-centered/whiny actor Lee (Jonny Lee Miller) and his wife Laurel (Chloë Sevigny). Melinda’s bursting-in undoes the evening, sending Lee into a sulky paroxysm and Laurel into sympathy and nurturance, whereupon Melinda explains her lengthy absence from their lives as the result of serial disasters—a marriage gone bad, suicide attempt, and institutionalization (a time she calls “a confused down period,” before she unloads the grim and elaborate details). And so Laurel and another college friend, Cassie (the excellent Brooke Smith), in between what resentful Lee calls their perpetual “shopping and lunching,” make it their mission to set up Melinda with a “nice dentist” (“He’s a good catch,” assures Cassie, “If I can speak pragmatically”).
The other Melinda also appears without warning, but this time as the downstairs neighbor to an Upper East Side couple, another struggling actor, Hobie (Will Ferrell), and his movie director wife Susan (Amanda Peet). This Melinda has just made her own suicide attempt (she’s swallowed 28 sleeping pills), and Susan is the one peeved, as she’s entertaining a would-be producer for her next project, “The Castration Sonata.” And so it falls to dejected Hobie to nurture the wounded Melinda, here in the guise of falling in love with her, as per his role as the Allen stand-in, stuttering, sweet, lascivious, and vaguely degenerated, as if Ferrell is doing Jason Biggs doing Kenneth Branagh doing Allen. It’s only a matter of time before he’s sputtering and fretting over the fact that Susan decides to fix up Melinda with another “nice dentist,” Greg (Josh Brolin), proud possessor of a Bentley and a fancy summer house in the Hamptons.
The film is less interested in Melinda’s response to the forgettable dentist than in Hobie’s response, namely, his very verbal jealousy (he and Susan are along for the beach trip). Even as Melinda’s own affection for begins to overwhelm both the comic and tragic versions of her story, Hobie and Laurel function as the designated best friends in each. Hobie’s friendship can’t help but spill over into (his) lust for the lovely, seemingly fragile, and exceedingly emotional object of desire, not quite Annie Hall (whose resilience in the face of the mammoth Allen neuroses remains venerable).
Hobie takes a kind of action. He rejiggers his life with Susan in order to make himself look “available” for Melinda. The joke being that the Allen character is never actually available, but rather, needy, fervent, and clumsily scheming. Meanwhile, Laurel is considerably less annoying (Sevigny’s low-key, intelligent performance helps in this aspect). Much as she’s wondering about her own choices, specifically her marriage to Lee, Laurel listens compassionately as Melinda recalls she “had a reputation for being postmodern in bed,” then admits that she’s only been with one man, her cheating spouse Lee. And so she occupies her own version of the Allen role, that is, the Allen who was trusting and sympathetic, even in the midst of his own unhappiness.
It’s no surprise but nonetheless disappointing that Melinda and Melinda‘s primary crises (one per story) are grounded in a clumsy take on race, more specifically, on interracial coupling. In both the tragic and comedic versions, Melinda ends up falling into relationships (at least temporarily) with men of color, the elegant, earnest classical pianist Ellis Moonsong (Chiwetel Ejiofor), in the Laurel story, and the young, beautiful, casually charismatic pianist Billy (Daniel Sunjata) in the Hobie story.
Both relationships lead to more of Melinda’s heartache, to varying degrees, though again, the emotional focus in each case is less her turmoil than the occasion this turmoil provides for others to react and act out. Oddly and disconcertingly, both climaxes involve a white woman (only one being Melinda) in some despair as she attempts to jump out a window. This event is made comic in the Hobie plot, by virtue of his ridiculous efforts to contain the suddenly excessive female body, and harrowing in the other, by virtue of a friend’s sudden, selfish, and familiar betrayal (the heart wants what the heart wants, etc.).
This betrayal, in fact, motivates what may be the film’s funniest, sickest line, when Cassie advises a fretful Melinda: “Even if your worst fears are true, you can’t go off the deep end.” What makes this line both funny and preposterous is that the entire film is a deep end, in which everyone is going off at some point or another. In both tragedy and comedy, it appears, the suicidal woman provides a convenient point of departure, but she is, after all, only the beginning(s). Unable to make sense of her desires or trust her friends, she embodies but barely contains the problems of storytelling that the film takes as its premise. Whether her excesses lead to heartbreak or full-on calamity, the film proposes that she’s too much for either genre on its own.