The richest joke surrounding Woody Allen's career these days is the notion – incredibly, one still hears it bandied around in the media – that he is a philosophical filmmaker.
But that philosophical rumination – which doesn't seem to have gotten far past about 1955 and a Funny Face-style appropriation of imported French Existentialism – amounts simply to this bald statement, announced once and for all in its utter banality by Wallace Shawn in the closing scene of Melinda and Melinda: "No matter what you do or how you live, you're going to die, so you better enjoy it while you can!"
In other words, philosophy has only one subject in the School of Woody Allen: mortality. No questions of Politics, or Identity, or Community, or even Being. Actually, I am wrong: in Allen's better, more adventurous films, such as the Kieslowski-like Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), there is a dimension of Ethics, of moral behaviour and the consequence of one's actions: good and evil, crime and punishment, damnation and redemption. And wasn't it in that film where we first heard the central idea of this one: if it's comedy it bends, if it's drama it breaks? There, it was a joke; now, it's offered as wisdom.
But with Melinda and Melinda – laughably hailed as a 'return to form' (after two films not even theatrically released in Australia, a real comedown for his reputation in this Woody-worshipping land) - we are back in the familiar, lightweight, airless, reality-free world of most Allen films: no responsibilities, no families, no kids, no consequences. That constitutes all the stuff he has run away from since his well-publicised private troubles.
Melinda and Melinda plays out a conceit – I shudder to call it modernist, since Woody's idea of modern, rule-breaking (or bending) cinema clocks in at around 1963, as previous films like Deconstructing Harry (1997) have already amply shown – that never gels. Shawn and a couple of friends discuss storytelling, and compare comedy with tragedy. They begin an experiment wherein the same story will be told in two starkly different ways. I have already spilled the profundity to which this rum investigation ultimately leads.
OK, we are in the storytelling mode we know from some lightly enjoyable Allen films, such as Broadway Danny Rose (1984). But Allen can't even play fair by the rules of the game he himself sets up here. Because, to put it bluntly, what we get is not the same story told two different ways – that might have been interesting, although I wonder whether Woody is formalist enough to manage the demonstration – but two completely different stories! Yes, they start with the same event (Radha Mitchell shows up unannounced, out of the past, at a bourgeois dinner party), and they share certain elements and motifs (such as a woman trying to throw herself out a window). But lightly playing with the distribution of elements does not a make for a recto-verso construction.
Conceptualism is not Allen's strongest suit – and, like in movies that use film-within-film conceits (only Wong Kar-wai manages to avoid this in 2046 ), the reigning self-consciousness tends to strangle everything within quotation marks from the get-go. Look, for example, at the ridiculously 'dark', cage-within-a-frame final shot of the comatose Mitchell, before the rom-com happy ending comes riding in for the rescue.
Even some people who try to like Melinda and Melinda will pretty readily admit that the comedy is not terribly comic, the tragedy is not terribly tragic, and there seems to be little difference between the two modes in Allen's hands. In fact – in the terms I am suggesting – in place of one story told in two different ways, it's a case of two stories told in essentially the very same way!
All this could have been predicted: Allen keeps slipping sitcom-style jokes into the supposedly tragic scenes, and the drama never reaches even the pitch of his failed attempts at straight stuff, like September (1987) or the bizarrely hysterical Interiors (1978). Nothing much is either bending or breaking here.
All we are left with: some less horrible staging than usual from Allen; generally watchable players; a few mild laughs (special thanks to Will Ferrell's schtick); and (for a change) a politically-correctly-inserted black man. Whoop-de-doo.
© Adrian Martin June 2005