Woody Allen | 95 mins | TV (HD) | 12 / PG-13
Despite the city being as associated with him as jam is with donuts, Melinda and Melinda was Woody Allen’s last New York-set film before he began his current European phase with London-set thriller Match Point.* Match Point seems to come in for a lot of stick these days, but I really liked it. Neither of these points have any bearing on Melinda and Melinda.
One might argue that this is a remake of Sliding Doors, but only in a superficial and unsustainable way. Here, two stories are told, both taking the same premise — a Manhattan dinner party is interrupted — but one is told as a tragedy and one is told as a comedy. The only common factor is Radha Mitchell’s Melinda, who takes on a very different role in each tale. Not very like Sliding Doors at all; plus, the framing device makes it clear these are two different stories, not Sliding Doors semi-sci-fi parallel universes thing.
If it wasn’t for the framing device that clearly tells us not only the thematic point of the film but also which bit is the comedy and which the tragedy, I don’t think it would be immediately possible to tell which was which. Indeed, one might think that was Allen’s point: life is neither tragedy nor comedy, but both at the same time, so of course you can’t tell the difference. But as it goes on the comedy does introduce a couple more laughs, but even more so a general niceness that leads to the predictable rom-com ending. Concurrently, the tragedy introduces darker elements and refuses to provide a neat, conclusive or satisfying ending, which is both thematically sound (I suppose) and also dramatically frustrating.
The idea of telling the same story as both a tragedy and a comedy is a nice one — there’s potential there for something that explores the differences and similarities of the forms, or for an exercise that demonstrates how much a storyteller’s decisions influence what we see — but Allen doesn’t go down that route, either deliberately or by fault. This isn’t the same story twice in differing styles, but more like a storytelling exercise; an exercise where two storytellers have been given a few of the same character archetypes, plot events and locations, but one’s been told to write a comedy and one a drama, and then they’ve crafted them completely independently. So that is to say, for instance, that the same restaurant may appear in both tellings, but at different points and with a different scene taking place; or in one storyline the director-character is an outsider who holds the husband’s future in his hands, while in the other the director-character is the wife and a different outsider holds her future in his hands. If that makes sense.
In not creating two halves that mirror each other Allen breaks free from what you might expect given the film’s premise, but perhaps loses some of the concept’s neatness. In my opinion, the exact same characters starring in the exact same sequence of events, but told once as if it were a tragedy and once as if it were a comedy, might’ve made for a more interesting juxtaposition… but then again, would it make for merely a technical exercise, rather than two (attempts at) good stories in their own right? It’s a choice one could — appropriately — go back and forth on.
* 2009’s Whatever Works was set in New York, which I’m sure he did just to muck up introductions like this. I’m sure that’s why.