It’s already a well-known and accepted fact that life is far from fair — but is it essentially comic or tragic? This is the bold question behind Woody Allen’s latest film, and it initially appears to be a fitting topic for the director who so fluidly helmed the comic pathos of classics like “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

Film Reviews
“I want to look like a monkey, too!” (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

It’s too bad that the undertaking proves too ambitious for Allen to fully flesh out. By taking a single event and interweaving two different versions of its consequences, the film attempts a brave examination of what separates comedy from tragedy. Unfortunately, the whole project ultimately falls flat because of Allen’s inability to capture the full effect of either.

The same event serves as catalyst for both stories — wayward waif Melinda (Radha Mitchell, “Finding Neverland”) drops in unexpectedly upon an otherwise peaceable upper-middle class dinner party, bringing a hefty load of emotional baggage with her. In the tragic version, she is received by a married pair of long-suffering college friends (Chloe Sevigny, “Shattered Glass” and Jonny Lee Miller, “Mansfield Park”), who deplore her continual emotional problems while, in true Hollywood-drama fashion, ignoring their own. Marked by all the traditional signals of mental instability, tragic Melinda smokes furiously, drinks heavily and — in cinema’s favorite indication of character — keeps her hair messily unkempt.

The flabbergasted dinner hosts of the comedic version are Melinda’s genially hospitable neighbors (Will Ferrell, “Anchorman” and Amanda Peet, “The Whole Ten Yards”), who quickly accept Melinda’s friendship. Ferrell’s Hobie feverishly yearns to develop this relationship into romance. Ferrell, though a surprise choice to step into the neurotically comic shoes Allen usually fills, proves an affable lead. His doleful, average physicality makes for a completely different, though not unwelcome, brand of comedy than Allen’s acerbic self-consciousness.

“Melinda and Melinda” plays like vintage Woody in several stylistic ways. There’s the familiar jazz music in the background, simple white-on-black opening credits, prominent themes of infidelity and partner-switching and, of course, the New York setting, with the usual unexplainable expensive apartments. The flourish of the final shot in particular glints with an impish Allen wink, reminiscent of the notable breaking of the fourth wall in “Annie Hall.”

The rest of the film could have greatly profited from such fresh immediacy — but the drama isn’t tragic, and the comedy isn’t funny. Each version adheres so rigidly to its structure — eye roll-inducing talk of souls in the former, slapstick eavesdropping in the latter — that both come off merely as lessons in storytelling, rather than actual stories that resonate with the audience. “Melinda” lacks the voyeuristic naturalism so typical of Allen’s other films; it’s burdened by unwieldy, showy dialogue that is far from his trademark realistic banter. Particularly in the tragic version, the capable cast at Allen’s disposal is left to portray characters instead of people.

If this effect is intended, Allen is misguided: Both stories fall flat rather than appealing to viewers with more engaging development. In toying with the plot points and character templates that separate comedy and tragedy, Allen forgets that drama itself is not derived from the merits of individual parts alone but from how those elements work together.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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