I AM TWO PEOPLE, ONE YOU DON'T LIKE
I love the poster for the new Woody Allen movie, Melinda and Melinda. Don't you? The good news is, there is a pretty decent movie to back it up. One hates to hang posters on one's wall for movies that one can't get behind, doesn't one?
The film opens in a cafe, where four people are talking about their lives on Broadway. Two of the men are stage producers, you see, and one produces tragic dramas and the other produces light comedies. (The latter is played by Wallace Shawn, and Allen had to be playing with his audience when he cast him. I was having My Dinner With Andre flashbacks and had to go to IMDB to make sure the other actor wasn't actually Andre.) Their big question is which practice speaks more to the reality of life, and though they pretty much answer the query from the get-go (both, dear, both), it becomes the set-up for Allen's exercise: another of the diners poses a scenario of a woman bursting into a dinner party unannounced, and each man spins his version, showing how all of life's scenes has elements of both the miserable and the hilarious.
The rest of Melinda and Melinda criss-crosses between the two stories. Allen has cast both sides according to their form; Radha Mitchell, as Melinda, is the only actor to appear in both. Mitchell is brilliantly cast. Her switching between the two versions is more than a change of hairdo. She is somehow playing the same woman yet playing her different to fit the moment she finds herself in. On the tragic side, she has a manic fragility, whereas on the comedy side, it's more sweet--yet it's the same fragility. Regardless of the quality of the rest of the film, you'd want to watch Mitchell, just to see her fall apart and come back together over and over.
It's an interesting concept, and for the most part, Allen makes it work. It's only in the end where he loses his momentum. The drama actually comes to a relatively satisfying conclusion. On that side of things, Melinda has always taken the responsibility for her fate, and any tragedy that occurs she sees as the result of her own actions. It's only when she discovers a betrayal at the center of her rehabilitation that she is exposed as a victim. It's the last thing that can be taken away from her: her control over her own screw-ups. To have those close to her wreak havoc on her life is more than she can bear.
Unfortunately, on the comedy side of things, the story more runs out of steam than wraps up in any real way. In fact, the comedy seems to get short shrift throughout. For the first couple of scenes, it's not actually very funny, but Will Ferrell, playing his most subdued role to date as the usual Allen stand-in, pulls the laughs out of it by sheer determination (it's odd seeing such a big man be the Woody nebish). But then the script fails him and Mitchell. It's supposd to be a romantic comedy, so we know where it's heading, and it's how we get there that is what we are onboard for. When the story should get ridiculously complicated, so that the untangling of it is fun and the union a relief, Allen plays it passively, as if he is afraid to get too close to the romantic heart.
Still, Melinda and Melinda is one of Woody Allen's best movies in a long while, and the split-story device is a clever way to play with convention. There is an even further melding of two opposing yet intertwined mediums, as the film is essentially two imagined plays, and though Allen shoots it like a movie, he writes it as if for the stage. I couldn't help but wonder, though, how much more interesting it could have been if he had taken yet another stretch and switched the casts. What if, instead of casting Will Ferrell and Amanda Peet for the comedy, as is expected, he had made them the tragic actors, and Jonny Lee Miller and Chloe Sevigny could have played the clowns. If Allen truly wanted to show how the two forms really are one and the same, that would have driven the point home even further.
Low stopped in Portland last night, playing at the Bossanova. I am always excited to see them, and it was going to be interesting to see how some of my thoughts about their most recent album, The Great Destroyer, played out in the live setting. I'm happy to report that the songs sound great in person. Alan Sparhawk seems to have unleashed something, indulging his inner geek rocker with little jumps and guitar hero poses. He was also in the lightest mood I've ever witnessed in God knows how many performances, with none of the usual self-deprecation. One audience member kept tossing flowers onstage, prompting several Morrissey jokes and culminating in him sticking some in his back pocket, old-school Smiths-style. Plus, the old Alan wouldn't have been able to rebound from a set that began on a mistake. His microphone wasn't turned on when the trio took the stage. They started "Murderer" anyway, with Sparhawk singing the first couple of verses without amplification. It was thrillingly spontaneous.
The set was probably 70% The Great Destroyer, but they didn't shy away from old, quieter tunes like "Laser Beam" and the ever-excellent "Shame." Still, it was hard not to feel like something wasn't quite right. Low shows always felt like a communal experience: people packed into a room for over an hour to listen to incredibly hushed music. It was automatically intimate, and we'd often end up sitting on the floor, eyes closed, just listening. Now that a good portion of the music is loud and fuzzy, it's hard for it not to be just like any other rock show. Feet are tapping, people are dancing--is this Low?
Pedro The Lion opened, and man, what a dismal experience that was. How frightfully dull! There seems to be potential there: they actually reminded me somewhat of the Doves, but like the Doves if they were in their garage back in high school before they knew how to sing, play, or make their melodies soar. Regardless, the army of poorly bearded, thinning-haired saddoes came out to see their king, and he projected their image right back at them.
Current Sountrack: The House of Love, Days Run Away; Low, "Cue The Strings (alternate version)"
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2004 Jamie S. Rich