Not Will Ferrell. You can have Jason Biggs and Christina Ricci. You can take Téa Leoni, waste Helen Hunt, do your worst with Tracey Ullman and Hugh Grant. Make Drew Barrymore and Edward Norton sing? Fine, do that, too. We really don't have a stake in what these stars do with their careers. Over the last 15-odd years of his career, however, Woody Allen has been like a vampire, sucking the joy out of performers we appreciate elsewhere. If their ambition leads them to accept a part in one of Allen's annual fall mystery projects, where script pages are only given out on a need-to-know basis—well, that's what agents are for: to keep them from following their artistic choices down the toilet. But Will Ferrell, our Elf, our Ron Burgundy, our Jacobin Mugatu, our Frank the Tank? Him, too? This isn't fair.
That was my reaction a year ago to the IMDb cast listing for Melinda and Melinda (which opens Wednesday, March 23, at the Guild 45 and other theaters). I suspect many other fans are with me on this. If you also once valued Allen as you do Ferrell today, you'll know they have completely different comic styles. From his hyperactive SNL cheerleader Craig to disco-crazed Steve Butabi, Ferrell is the completely unhinged extrovert. He's never inhibited by the presence of others. Shame means nothing; it's just another form of attention. To be neurotic, on the other hand, like Allen's comic persona, requires extreme self- consciousness—which Ferrell's characters are blissfully lacking. In the '70s, neurosis got laughs because psychoanalysis and couch jokes were still part of the culture. Today, in our post-therapy Prozac age, Ferrell is the guy who refuses to take his Ritalin. In comic terms, acting out is the new angst.
Never mind how he's pricelessly parodied the doddering pretentiousness of James Lipton, Melinda makes Ferrell the dull, diligent student of Allen's old and now famously annoying mannerisms. Like Biggs and Kenneth Branagh before him, he ends up the Woody surrogate, conscientiously replicating the nasal ums and ahems of the master, wearing sensible shoes and tweed jackets, pretending he's from the Bronx. It's painful to watch. In the duplex-plotted Melinda, Ferrell is meekly married to an ambitious director (Amanda Peet) in the movie's comic half, which alternates back and forth with a dramatic doppelgänger. (A cafe-table prelude, with intellectuals including Wallace Shawn, sets up the premise: that the same pattern of incidents could motivate either comedy or drama.) In storms hurricane Melinda (Australian actress Radha Mitchell of Finding Neverland), with whom Ferrell's unhappy actor eventually falls in love.
ACROSS THE AISLE, the other Melinda (Mitchell again) is a self-destructive drama queen who grandiosely compares herself to Madame Bovary. This time, the marriage under siege is between Jonny Lee Miller, an actor, and Chloë Sevigny, a Park Avenue socialite. This Melinda is more dangerous than ditsy; her old college friends (Sevigny and Brooke Smith) help her at the risk of burning their fingers—and more.
The last time Allen tried a twofer was Crimes and Misdemeanors, where the comedy and drama mutually informed each other. Here, it's more like switching between a sitcom pilot—that the networks would never pick up—and an off- Broadway play that'll never see the Great White Way. Apart from Shawn and his tablemates, who occasionally comment on the two tales, there's no connection, only coincidence. Common elements include drinking problems, eligible dentists, suicide attempts, horse races, handsome piano players, and Aladdin's lamp.
Everyone grouses that life is too brief, that they'd magically like it changed, to be married to somebody else, to be 17 again. Maybe Allen is suggesting that people aren't genuinely in control of their destiny, that accidents and interlopers like Melinda will always disrupt our plans (resulting in either laughter or tears), but none of these themes coalesces in the paired stories. You're left wishing the two different casts would just meet and fight it out for control of the picture, like the Sharks and the Jets of the Upper East Side.
I TRY, I REALLY DO, not to sound like all the other bitter old film critics nostalgic for the vintage days of Woody Allen. All the reviews are going to read the same way: another disappointment from the past master. But Melinda is his fault, not ours. Its defining scene comes when Ferrell, Peet, and Mitchell visit a rich dentist's house in the Hamptons. Ferrell protests he's allergic to the beach, that he hates the ocean and sand. Peet slugs him in the shoulder, saying, "He's like an old man!" and Ferrell winces at the blow—this from an actor who's 6-foot-3, who grew up on the California beaches, whose best comic moments are boundlessly physical. And to top it all off, he passes up a chance to bounce on a trampoline—a perfect engine for comedy! It's pathetic, not parodic.
That Allen has sourly trapped himself in a world of privilege, isolated and incurious about the world outside, has become woefully apparent over the years. (In Melinda, you care more about the luxe apartments than the people who reside there.) The wonder is that his myopia extends to other talent—he practically mistakes them for furniture. Peet and Sevigny are treated like wallpaper; you'd never know Miller starred in Trainspotting; and Mitchell, though she receives a workout as an actress, comes across as a collection of tics and clichés. I've seen more plausible characters on the Cartoon Network.
In a bitter but telling comment, Miller's alcoholic actor says, "Life has a malicious way of dealing with great potential." Only here it's not malice but justice that's finally having its way with Woody Allen.