Reviews

Melinda and Melinda (2005)

Cynthia Fuchs

In Melinda and Melinda, full of women struggling to make their desires known to men who suppose they know what women want and mean, the women are infinitely less regular and more interesting.


Melinda and Melinda

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Radha Mitchell, Chloë Sevigny, Amanda Peet, Will Farrell, Jonny Lee Miller
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Fox Searchlight
First date: 2005
US DVD Release Date: 2005-10-25

The women in Woody Allen movies tend to seize attention. They do it by acting out, by acting large, by acting beautifully. Just so, in Melinda and Melinda, full of women struggling to make their desires known to men who suppose they know what women want and mean, the women are infinitely less regular and more interesting. It opens on a rainy night, then invites you inside a cozy restaurant where two typical Allen protagonists -- Max (Larry Pine) and Sy (Wallace Shawn) -- argue earnestly over the "essence of life." Is it comic or tragic? "You guys!" interrupts Louise (Stephanie Roth Haberle), the lone woman at the table. "What are you -- what are we -- discussing here? Is there a deeper reality in comedy or tragedy? Who can even make such a judgment?"

The "guys" can and do, as they are yet another version of Allen's well-heeled Manhattanites, pondering another version of the sort of reductive question they see as profound. This question provides the structural trick for Melinda and Melinda, now released to no-frills DVD. The much beset titular protagonist (Radha Mitchell) appears in two stories that run parallel and intertwine in ways that highlight generic differences and similarities.

Each storyteller 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 (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, all-female project, called "The Castration Sonata." While she's weary of the evening by the time Melinda arrives -- as she's stuck entertaining potential producers with "obsequious banter" -- she leaves Melinda to Hobie. As the Allen stand-in (stuttering, sweet, lascivious, and vaguely degenerated), Hubie proceeds to fall falling in love with their guest. It's only a matter of time before he's sputtering and fretting over the fact that Susan fixes 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 here). 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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image