Melinda and Melinda (12A)

Two halves of Woody almost make a whole
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Woody Allen's new film is not at all bad. That may hardly seem headline news, but it's a welcome surprise given how abysmal his last few efforts were. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion was a claustrophobically inert comedy-thriller, Anything Else resembled the reheated dregs of Annie Hall's decaf, and Hollywood Ending, never released here, was depressingly cynical - a farce about a bumbling director who makes a film so irredeemably dire that, wait for the punchline, the French acclaim it as a masterpiece. In fact, Allen had the last laugh - the French actually chose Hollywood Ending as opening night film in Cannes rather than lynch him, as you might have expected.

Now, there's no doubt that Melinda and Melinda is a return to form. The trouble is, it's a return to old form: it would have fitted comfortably into Allen's Eighties filmography, and Mia Farrow might even have played the twin lead roles. It's elegant and clever, a little bit severe but also a touch cosy: it would be Woody Allen's equivalent of an Anita Brookner novel, if he were anything like as consistent as her. Still, it's the first Allen film since 1999's Sweet and Lowdown that won't make you feel like throttling the cashier on the way out.

The premise of Melinda and Melinda is classically simple, though you might prefer to call it wafer thin. A bunch of literary chatterers sit in a Manhattan bistro discussing the difference between comedy and tragedy: the gist is that the two forms are really a hair's breadth apart, and one story can be either, depending how it's told. One man (that human turtle, Wallace Shawn) moans about the sorrows of life: wouldn't you know it, he's a comedy writer. Another (Larry Pine) has altogether a jollier disposition; naturally his stock in trade is tragedy. A third man pitches them a story, and the two writers spin alternating versions, one scored to Stravinsky, the other to Ellington.

In the tragic version, a bedraggled woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) interrupts a dinner party held by her old friend Laurel (Chloë Sevigny) and her embittered actor husband Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), and spins a hard luck story of divorce, imprisonment and Greyhound buses. Cut to the comedy, where a slightly less haggard Melinda walks in on Susan (Amanda Peet) and her failed actor husband Hobie, a babbling, neurotic buffoon (Will Ferrell, modelling Allen's own hand-me-down persona).

The criss-cross between the two stories isn't quite dialectical cut-and-thrust, more a gentle ping-pong, with variations gently batted between the two. In the tragedy, Melinda has some happiness in store, as she falls for an urbanely romantic composer improbably named Ellis Moonsong, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. (The script keeps telling us how unlikely the characters' names are, which is either clumsiness on Allen's part, or him passing judgment on the competence of his two storytellers - but I suspect it's the former). In the comedy version, meanwhile, there's tragedy too. Hobie loves Melinda, but is horribly mistreated by the egotistical Susan, Allen's most crudely misogynistic creation in years, a film-maker whose cherished project is called The Castration Sonata.

Allen is, to say the least, a little casual in constructing his ironic counterpoint between the stories. Both Melindas visit the same candle-lit bar, are fixed up by friends with eligible dentists, and meet men over piano keyboards; and both stories feature magic lamps. Magic has cropped up before in Allen's films, notably in Alice, but it's never seemed so transparently an arbitrary narrative short cut.

Melinda herself isn't entirely a character, more a bundle of backstory with supporting neurosis, and in the tragic version, laden with a secret far too stormy for the film's gentle Manhattan melodrama to easily accommodate. She's more a catalyst than a person in her own right, sending everyone's lives off the rails: the film's one truly mordant touch is the way she causes the sympathetic Laurel finally to reveal her own nasty side.

Fortunately, Australian actress Radha Mitchell seizes with both hands on what's essentially an old-fashioned Woman of Mystery. Her Tragic Melinda, fumbling with cigarettes and all a-judder with nervous anxiety, seems overdone at first (Mitchell seems to be paying tribute to her compatriot, sometime Allen player Judy Davis), but once in her stride she's galvanisingly intense, and all in all, she makes an Allen film more her own than anyone has done in quite some time.

In fact, Melinda and Melinda has Allen's best cast in a while, and almost convinces us that it deserves it. Career hipster Sevigny is surprisingly at ease as a genteel uptowner, Jonny Lee Miller is memorably abrasive, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is jaunty as Melinda's not entirely convincing dream man - although he's the only black performer in Allen's films who has had the chance to play anything resembling a character. The big surprise, however, is Will Ferrell, the amiable dork from Elf: his playing is a little broad among this company, but he's more than personable, and you feel he's using his own comically cumbersome face and physique rather than purely playing dummy to Allen's ventriloquist.

Melinda and Melinda may be schematic and contrived, but it's agreeably frank about its own contrivance, offering itself less as a story than as a sort of illustrated seminar on the problems of screenwriting (although it's not quite insightful enough to qualify as a masterclass). You wonder whether Allen and his own pals indulge in such bistro colloquies; but you suspect that no one ever really gets to give Allen their opinions about what does and doesn't work, otherwise he would never have turned in those last few clunkers. The refreshing thing about Melinda and Melinda is that he seems at last to be open to discussion - even if it's only with himself.