Will Ferrell and Amanda Peet in a scene from "Melinda and Melinda"

We watched the 2004 film “Melinda and Melinda,” which was written and directed by Woody Allen. It was an uneven experience, and I think that was because the balance between comedy and tragedy — which goes to the heart of the film — wasn’t achieved. In my view, at least, the tragedy is to profound to be counterbalanced by the romance. The tragedy is what I expect to stay with me.


The story, as one might expect of a Woody Allen film, is based on an offbeat premise. Two playwrights and several of their friends have dinner in a Manhattan restaurant, and their conversation drifts into the subject of tragedy and comedy as defining elements of everyday life. These playwrights, by the way, are limited parts wonderfully played by Larry Pine and Wallace Shawn. One of the dinner party describes what she says was a real-life incident in which a domestic dinner party was interrupted by  the unexpected arrival of a female friend of the hosts. The two playwrights then concoct full-blown stories from that premise — one a tragedy and one a romantic comedy. In both instances, the unexpected visitor is Melinda – played in both cases by the magnetic Radha Mitchell.


In the tragic version, Melinda is a suicidal woman who — by her own account — squandered an idyllic life with her physician husband and two loving children, because she had grown bored with existence and blundered her way into the arms of an Italian photographer. That adventure cost her not only the marriage but any opportunity to even see her kids. She returns to Manhattan in a confused effort to build a new life for herself, but she winds up disrupting the lives of the couple she barges in on, a minor actor and a music teacher played by Johnny Lee Miller and Chloe Sevigny.


In the comic version, Melinda is a single woman who has temporarily moved into the apartment building occupied by an independent film maker and her husband — another minor actor — played by Amanda Peet and Will Ferrell. Ferrell, incidentally, is the surrogate for Allen, the part he would have played himself if he had less sense. In this  version, too, the addition of Melinda disturbs the chemical balance in the household, albeit in an ultimately hilarious way.


There are a couple of other important characters, most notably Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays a kind of demon-ex-machina who helps bring on the decisive crisis in the tale of Melinda the Tragic.
Perhaps it’s typical of Woody Allen’s films that a viewer can enjoy this one best by suspending credulity concerning the characters, their motivations and behavior, and the witty, boozy environment in which they live. Although Allen, as usual, pushes introspection to the edge of its tolerable limits, he does so with a sharp and absorbing script. As usual, too, he has assembled a highly talented cast to deliver his material, and every one of the actors does his work justice.
I am not a fan of Will Ferrell’s, but I found him to be a natural for the role he takes on here. Perhaps twice in the film, one imagines having heard Woody Allen’s own voice speaking lines he might have spoken himself in a perfect world in which the actor never ages, but for the most part Ferrell puts his own comic stamp on the character.
I can’t say enough about Radha Mitchell’s portrayal of the two Melindas. In particular, she is utterly convincing as the Melinda who is coming  undone when we meet her and continues to unravel before our eyes.
All in all, those who like to pick their spots with Woody Allen films would benefit from making this one a pick.

Will Ferrell and Radha Mitchell in a scene from "Melinda and Melinda"