WILLIAM HURT and MIA FARROW in "Alice"

I don’t know if it’s possible to not be in love with Mia Farrow, but watching the 1990 Woody Allen film Alice is not the way to avoid it.

MIA FARROW

In this wonderful fantasy, written and directed by Allen, Farrow plays Alice Tate, the wife of wealthy businessman Doug Tate (William Hurt). Alice lives in a world in which her biggest concern is how to fit all the pampering she receives into her busy schedule. She and Doug have children, and Alice seems genuinely attached to them, but the kids spend most of their time with a nanny while Mom is with the personal trainer or the hair dresser or with her equally spoiled and gossipy lady friends.

Her routine is disrupted at her childrens’ private school when she meets and is attracted to Joe (Joe Mantegna), the divorced father of one of the other children. Shy and at least nominally Catholic, Alice suppresses her interest in Joe at least for a while. Right around this time, her usual hypochondria becomes focused on a chronic pain in her back, which drives her to consult an herbalist in a crummy building in Chinatown.

KEYE LUKE

Dr. Yang, played in a marvelous performance by Keye Luke — his last role — understands immediately that there is nothing wrong with Alice’s back. He hypnotizes her and then introduces her to a series of herbs that have extraordinary effects on her, and eventually on Joe, including invisibility. Alice and Joe learn a great deal about themselves and about their spouses (ex-spouse, in Joe’s case). The result is a total change in both of their lives, although not in the way that might seem obvious.

Yang, who barks at any sign of self-indulgence in Alice and consistently refers to himself in the third person, is a unique and hilarious character.

As usual with Woody Allen, every character in this film is perfectly cast, including a brief turn by Bernadette Peters as a mystical “muse” who addresses Alice’s ambition to be a writer; Gwen Verdon as Alice’s memory of her mother; Blythe Danner as Alice’s somewhat estranged sister; and Alec Baldwin as the ghost of Alice’s first lover. Even the tiny role of an interior decorator is enhanced by Allen’s choice of Julie Kavner.

GWEN VERDON

As for Farrow, she is simply irresistible.

The film is outstanding for its photography and for the writing, which got Allen an Oscar nomination.

Alice was loosely based on Juliet of the Spirits, a 1965 Italian movie directed by Federico Fellini, the first feature-length film he shot in color.

MIA FARROW and KEYE LUKE in "Alice"

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.

RADHA MITCHELL

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.

TRAGIC MELINDA

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.

COMIC MELINDA

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.

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR

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"

REBECCA HALL

We finally got around to watching “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” which was a very successful film for Woody Allen in 2008. Besides making a lot of money – in proportion to its budget – the film won and was nominated for a ton of awards, including a best supporting actress Oscar for Penelope Cruz.

Allen pursues his interest in neurotic people, but in an unusual environment for him — some very attractive locations in Spain. The story involves two young American women — Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) — who get a chance to spend a summer in Spain in the home  of a distant relative of Vicky’s, played by Patricia Clarkson. Vicky, who is a bit prim and self-assured is engaged to marry a well-groomed go-getter. Cristina, who hasn’t been successful at relationships, tentatively plays at being a free spirit. Allen uses a narrator – Christopher Evan Welch – to describe in a documentary fashion the summer in Spain in which the lives of both women are thrown into disarray.

SCARLETT JOHANSSON

The agent for the turmoil is Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem), an artist whose relationship with his wife, Maria Elena (Cruz), was disrupted when she stabbed him in a characteristic fit of rage. Though it is disrupted, the relationship is not over — certainly not in Gonzalo’s mind or loins. Despite Vicky’s protestations, Cristina becomes involved with Gonzalo — in fact, moves in with him — after he unsuccessfully invites both women to join him in a menage. Vicky disapproves and says so, but by now — thanks to Gonzalo — she’s not nearly as sure of herself.

Things get very complicated even before Maria Elena reappears — with a flourish — to play a wholly unexpected part or two in turning things upside down.

JAVIER BARDEM

The credibility of this story hangs heavily on Gonzalo’s charm, and Bardem has it to spare. It’s an interesting combination of raw magnetism and sexual grace that plausibly could, on the one hand,  take advantage of Cristine’s confusion and, on the other hand, crumble Vicky’s moral fortifications, and — if there were a third hand — inspire Maria Elena’s capacity for both lust and murder.

As usual, when Allen is on his game, this film is well written, well directed, well cast, well photographed, and well acted.

Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem in a scene from "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"