Melinda and Melinda (12A)

Double vision
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The Independent Culture

In one of Woody Allen's best middle-period movies, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1990), a TV producer, played by Alan Alda, opines that "comedy is tragedy plus time". The line was pompously delivered - Alda's character is an insufferable boor - but as a maxim about the inextricable kinship between comedy and tragedy, it contained a nugget of truth. Allen must have thought so too, because his new movie Melinda and Melinda re-examines the question of that kinship via an intricate double narrative.

Is life to be considered tragic or comic - or a mysterious tangle of the two? The question is posed, in classic Allen fashion, at a Manhattan bistro, where four friends are dining. Two are playwrights, one "serious" (Larry Pine), the other an exponent of light comedy (Wallace Shawn), and, in a mood of friendly competition, each improvises a story about a young woman, Melinda (Radha Mitchell), who arrives unexpectedly at a dinner party. One playwright will treat it as a comedy, the other as a tragedy.

In the tragic version, Melinda is flaky, mercurial and on the run from a troubled private life. She imposes herself on her two friends, a failing actor (Jonny Lee Miller) and his music-teacher wife (Chloë Sevigny), whose marriage is falling apart.

In the comic version, Melinda is a kooky stranger who creates havoc at her neighbours' dinner party by announcing that she's just taken an overdose. "Don't throw up on the carpet!" begs the host, Hobie (Will Ferrell), another struggling actor with a teetering marriage: his wife (Amanda Peet) is an independent film-maker eager to drum up funds for her break-out project The Castration Sonata (an Allen touch if ever I heard one).

Cross-cutting between the two stories, the film inserts little correspondences - an Aladdin lamp, a piano duet with a stranger, a visit to Belmont racetrack - to chime with one another, while cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's late-afternoon palette of caramels and coffees is identical in both plots, clinching the idea of comedy and tragedy as interchangeable.

The separation of the two has obsessed Allen in the latter half of his career. Apparently resentful of the acclaim accorded to his comedies - the "early, funny ones" - he decided to immerse himself in the cold Bergmanesque bath of serious dramas such as September and Another Woman, which won him no new friends and alienated most of the old ones. Crimes and Misdemeanors did fuse the comic and tragic quite brilliantly, but since then, with one or two exceptions (Sweet and Lowdown), it's been a rocky road. His last few efforts were the paltry squibs of a man apparently working from memory. His comic reflexes seemed to have ossified: Woody was washed-up.

Which makes Melinda and Melinda an occasion, if not for rejoicing, then at least for cautious relief. He has somehow rediscovered the rhythm of those overlapping conversations that delighted us in Manhattan, and sets up the dinner-party scenes with an assurance that has been absent for years. He's also been very canny in his casting. In the first story, Chloë Sevigny adapts convincingly to the uptown princess role, and her scenes with a Harlem musician (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are fluent and perfectly weighted.

But what really makes the difference is Will Ferrell as Hobie. In previous films, the actors Allen has cast as surrogate versions of himself (most recently Jason Biggs in Anything Else) have chosen to reproduce his every last stutter and gulp, a flattering tribute to the director but a disaster for the audience. You can hear Allen in some of the gags here, but Ferrell is no slave to his master's voice, and makes this anxious schlemiel his own. Set up on a date with a ravishing young woman who's also a staunch Republican, Hobie decides to lay his cards on the table: "I'd hate to get all worked up and then find we differ on tax cuts."

It gradually dawns on you that the framing device is pretty much an irrelevance. The film isn't really a philosophical disquisition on life's meaning, but a wistful comedy of Manhattan manners in which couples fall in and out of love, pursue their own happiness and feel regret when their selfish behaviour hurts other people. So, a little bit like life, only with fancier home furnishings and funnier lines. "Of course we communicate," snaps a woman to her husband, "now can we just not talk about it?"

To call this a return to form for Allen, however, would be unwise - not just because his form over the past 20 years has been so erratic, but because there is something ill-fitting at the centre of the picture. Radha Mitchell, an Australian beauty Allen rightly spotted as a fine actress, has not been well directed: as tragic Melinda, she's twitchy and tediously self-absorbed, which might be forgivable if she could make the happy Melinda come to life. Sadly, there's little to distinguish the two aside from hairstyles, and the way Allen hurries her story to its conclusion suggests that he doesn't quite believe in her either. It's a disappointment, and a puzzler. Forget all the stuff about tragedy and comedy - who'd have thought that this terrific actress would be upstaged by the star of Elf?

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