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Practically everyone knows the typical Woody Allen “schtick”. His neurotic, rambling heroes, coincidentally played by none other than himself, used to be the staple diet of keen movie-goers during Allen’s heyday. But what happens when the hits dry up? What happens when the portraits of New York are no longer as uplifting as they once were, or Allen’s quirky versions of himself are more grating than great? The biggest question facing a directorial legend such as Woody Allen is how to tweak his stock-standard conventions for a modern audience. Melinda & Melinda is his latest crack at getting back to his best. Sadly, the master has fallen short once again, and even sadder is the popular theory that it might just bring the old man down for good.

Melinda & Melinda
Movie
There is still a lot of the old Woody Allen in this one, but some slight modifications have been made to ensure he can’t be accused of going stale and losing his audience without some sort of a fight. Firstly, the man himself is no longer the star of the show. In fact, he is absent altogether, which hasn’t happened in one of his films for some time.

The main premise of the film is that a particular character (Radha Mitchell’s Melinda) turns up a dinner party and throws the lives of everyone into chaos. But to make it slightly more Allen-esque the film is cut into two separate genres, one a comedy and the other a drama. The problem is the comedy aspect isn’t anywhere near as pronounced as it needs to be in order to create contrast between it and the drama act. Gone are the really slick and snappy one-liners which used to make Woody Allen’s films so adorable. Now they have been replaced by Will Ferrell’s Hobie (in the comedy section, naturally), who falls in love with Melinda despite her flaws and the fact that he’s still married (who would want to cheat on Amanda Peet anyway?).

Sadly the drama suffers the same fate. There is none of the panache we saw in Annie Hall, or endearing love story of Manhattan. Instead we get a simple, quaint piece involving Melinda and the charming but relatively boring Ellis (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Both genres touch the themes of marriage, fidelity, love, passion and general health and wellbeing. The unfortunate part is that it’s hard for the audience to care, and not for the predictable reason that the two intertwining stories don’t give us a chance to identify with the characters. Instead it is purely because a toned down Woody Allen is absolutely no fun at all, and this is coming from a writer who actually enjoyed the largely unsuccessful The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion.

The performances of the cast can’t really be faulted. The Jason Biggs experiment in Anything Else failed, so in steps Will Ferrell in a largely unfamiliar role of the straight guy with comic streaks appearing here and there. He and Australia’s own Radha Mitchell hold their own in their scenes together, so it’s a shame the writing isn’t quite up to scratch. Mitchell’s “other” Melinda takes a little more work, as she gets most of the neurotic pills Allen left behind when he stepped out of this one. She is even better here, and really makes this part of the film much easier to watch than it could have been. The supporting players are solid, particularly Amanda Peet in a limited role (if anyone was born to liven up a Woody Allen flick it was this woman) and also Chloe Sevigny and Jonny Lee Miller as Melinda’s old college buddies.

Melinda & Melinda
It’s such a shame to see this film misfire like it does. There was plenty of anticipation during pre-production, with many almost wishing this one over the line after a series of recent disappointments from the acclaimed director. Even the trailer looked the goods, promising that there were “two sides to every story”. Well, there may be two separate stories going on, but neither is really all that distinct from the other. Allen needed to either go full-tilt towards an out-and-out comedy, or re-think the entire structure of the stories and the writing. No one expects him to come out with an entirely different style overnight. What they do expect, however, is that a genius with a recent run of outs will either conjure up a brilliant comeback flick or keep clambering to hang on to his fallen star. Unfortunately it looks like it may be the latter, as people begin bringing back the memories of those mega-hits of years past.

Video
In true Fox fashion there is a fair bit to like about this transfer. The 1.85:1 visuals still exhibit the usual grain associated with Allen’s films, but this time it’s been tempered by the more vibrant colours and sharper transfer overall. It was never going to be the best looking transfer going around, but there are no visual errors to speak of which may harm your enjoyment of the film. Very little else to say for this one, so rest assured there are no issue with the transfer.

Audio
Being such a talkative film there isn’t all that much for the soundtrack to do, especially since all we get here is a Dolby 2.0 mix. There is a smattering of jazz and orchestral pieces which livens things up a little, but on the whole it’s your stock-standard stereo mix with crisp, clear dialogue, a few ambient effects thrown in and nothing more.

Melinda & Melinda
Extras
At least the disc is steeped in Woody Allen tradition. As always there is nothing to be found in the way of extras.

Overall
One can’t help but think this was Allen’s last chance, and it’s sad to say he might have blown it. I never thought I’d say it, but the days of longing to hear a joke with the word “didactic” in it are long gone. The film does have its merits but falls flat on the back of a lackluster script and the lack of contrast between the drama and comedy storylines. The disc itself is a bit average also, especially since there are no extras to speak of as expected. Tough to find any value in this one, so it might be a rental at best.


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