Woody Allen’s latest movie has a great premise. But while it is surer and more intriguing than the arid Anything Else and Hollywood Ending, it still fails to give us characters who connect in authentic or interesting ways to each other and therefore they never connect to us.
Four friends in a deli debate whether life is comedy or tragedy. One of them describes a moment: at a dinner party, the hosts are trying to impress a guest and a distressed young woman arrives unexpectedly.
One of the writers at the table (Wallace Shawn) says that is the perfect opening for a romantic comedy. Another (Larry Pine) says it is the beginning of a tragedy. As each tells the story his way, we see it unfolding. There are many parallels between the two versions, with the unexpected guest a woman named Melinda and played by Radha Mitchell in both stories.
In the tragic version of this story, a young couple living beyond their means is trying to impress a director at their dinner party so that he will cast the husband in his play. Melinda is an old friend of the party’s hostess (Chloe Sevigny) who has just shown up, two months late, for an extended stay. Her marriage to a doctor fell apart when she had an affair and in the divorce he got all of their money and full custody of the children. The affair ended and Melinda is in a bad way, smoking and drinking too much and taking too many pills. She has been hospitalized following a suicide attempt. She is strung out and desperate.
In the comic version of the story, the host couple is trying to impress a wealthy man so that he will help finance a movie the wife wants to direct, with her husband as a member of the cast. As in the tragic version, someone says, “I’m running out of obsequious banter.” Melinda shows up as a new neighbor in the building who needs help. As in the tragic version, she has lost her husband by having an affair, but this time there are no children and she is not a complete mess.
As we go back and forth between the two versions, it is often hard to tell them apart even though they have different characters, tones, soundtracks, and directions. That may be important for making Allen’s point about how comedy and tragedy intertwine. That’s a good point, but it is a problem when it comes to the success of the movie. Comic or tragic, a story should be involving. With dreary, self-involved, characters who move around the plots like sleepwalkers, neither one of these stories is.
Allen has addressed the same themes with more insight and wit many times. He has made themes like the fear of death, infidelity, and the longing for love comic and tragic in different movies and sometimes in the same movie. He made the same point he never quite gets to here in fifteen brilliant seconds in Stardust Memories when the supersmart alien tells the, um, alienated comedian who wants to address the tragedies of life, “You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.” That’s still good advice, especially if you’re making a movie.
Everyone wants to work with Woody Allen, so once again he has assembled a glittering cast of exceptionally talented actors. But the exquisitely designed sets overwhelm them. They do their best with his dialogue, but are unable to make it sound anything but awkward and overly scripted. Will Ferell is out of his comfort zone as he follows Kenneth Branaugh (Celebrity), Jason Biggs (Anything Else), and John Cusack (Bullets Over Broadway) as Woody Allen substitutes. The only performer who seems comfortable with his character is Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things and Love, Actually) as a sensitive and romantic musician. But the problem is not the performances, it is the characters, who are never involving or three-dimensional. That is is the movie’s real tragedy.
Parents should know that this movie has some strong language, explicit sexual references, drinking, smoking, drug abuse, and references to murder and suicide. A strength of the movie is its comfortable portrayal of inter-racial relationships.
Families who see this movie should talk about the differences and similarities between comedy and tragedy. In another Woody Allen movie, a character says that comedy is “tragedy plus time.” What does that mean?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy other Allen movies like Stardust Memories and comparing some of his comedies and dramas to think about how the same situations can work in either context. They may also enjoy Sliding Doors, about what would happen to a women played by Gwenyth Paltrow under two different scenarios, one if she catches the train, another if she misses it.