Spontaneous stories bridge gap between comedy, tragedy

The prolific and highly respected filmmaker Woody Allen is back with another feature, “Melinda and Melinda,” an exploration of the notions of tragedy and comedy in life and storytelling.

The film begins in a restaurant as four friends prepare to enjoy dinner. A playwright (Wallace Shawn) begins to debate with another playwright (Larry Pine) about whether the world is essentially tragic or comic. To settle the debate, their friend gives them a hypothetical situation, just the bare bones of a story, and asks them to fill in the blanks. The two playwrights give their respective takes on the story – one tragic, one comic – between which the film weaves back and forth.

The film occasionally returns to the four friends in the restaurant, as Allen reminds us that the stories we are seeing are not planned out but are being created moment by moment as we see them. It is also a reminder of the nature of the film-going experience – what we see is not a complete reality, but instead just the elements of reality that someone has chosen to show us.

Both versions of the story focus on a woman, Melinda (Radha Mitchell), who unexpectedly arrives at a dinner party. In the tragic version, Melinda is an old college friend of Laurel (Chloe Sevigny). Laurel is married to Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), a struggling alcoholic actor. Melinda begins a relationship with Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a piano player she meets at a party, but as one would expect from a tragedy, things do not go as she had hoped. In the comic version, Melinda is the downstairs neighbor of a filmmaker, Susan (Amanda Peet), and her out-of-work actor husband, Hobie (Will Ferrell).

The acting of the film is superb, with Ferrell, Mitchell and Ejiofor standing out. Ferrell (“Anchorman,” “Elf,” “Old School”) is playing a different character than we are used to seeing him as. However, he is able to play it perfectly, never abandoning the comedic talent for which he is known. Mitchell (“Finding Neverland,” “Man on Fire,” “Phone Booth”) takes on both roles and does a terrific job with them – she is able to act completely different in both stories, yet still retain a sense of similarity between the two characters. Ejiofor (“She Hate Me,” “Love Actually,” “Dirty Pretty Things”) is charming and elegant in his role as Ellis the piano player.

The actors in the tragic version of the story act very much like they would if they were acting in a play. Their lines are delivered in dramatic fashion, as if on stage, and even the scene setups are constructed to look as if they could be part of a play. The comedic version of the story is much lighter and the contrast between the two stories works well to highlight their differences.

Interestingly, certain aspects of the story overlap in the two different versions. For example, a dentist is involved in the two stories and a day at the racetrack is also a key part in both versions. I liked this overlap very much; in fact, I wish there was more of it. It says a lot about the nature of telling stories, the various perspectives one can take and the direction we can choose to go with any given material.

In “Melinda and Melinda,” Allen takes a look at the duality of life, the two sides of human nature, and he manages to do it with his own successful style. At one point in the film, Melinda is asked, “Are those tears of sorrow or tears of joy?” To which she answers, “Aren’t they the same?” Allen reiterates this point over and over again throughout the film, right up to the very end.

I suspect that some people will love the film from the start and enjoy it the whole way through. For others, it will seem pretentious or gimmicky. Yet this only helps to enforce the point that Allen tries to make, a message he never loses sight of during the course of the film – perhaps there are always two ways of looking at things.