Melinda is the girl so messed up, they told her story twice. Specifically, two playwrights in a New York City restaurant reconstruct elements of her hard-luck story; one is a comedy, the other a tragedy.
Thus, this year’s Woody Allen picture actually delivers two movies in one, as separate casts swap scenes throughout, unfolding poor Melinda’s tale for either sympathy or chuckles. Only the actress who plays Melinda appears in both tellings.
In the tragedy, Melinda crashes the dinner party of old friends Laura and Lee looking for a place to stay after hard years on the road. As she seeks to rebuild her life, her self-destructive behavior begins to reveal the chaos in their lives, as well. Lee’s drinking and fooling around eventually drive Laura to consider infidelity. Meanwhile, Melinda finds hope in a new love with a piano player named Ellis, but her instability soon threatens their relationship.
In the comedy, Melinda is a downstairs neighbor who crashes the dinner party of Hobie and Susan after taking 27 sleeping pills. The couple helps Melinda get on her feet again, but Hobie quickly falls for her. Of course, just as he’s ready to make his declaration of love, Melinda announces she’s in love with another man. Hobie "suffers" in a style very familiar to fans of Allen’s work until the comedy-friendly ending.
The pairing of the two stories makes clear that much of Melinda’s trouble comes from her own self-destructive behavior, as well as her all-consuming self-focus. She drinks and smokes constantly, does not eat enough and gets involved in a steady stream of unhealthy relationships. It could also be said the film makes the case that choosing to laugh at life’s difficulties is healthier than seeing oneself as an endless victim of some cosmic curmudgeon.
Melinda is set up with a man who says he is not religious, especially since his wife’s death. He further explains that he’s trying to avoid causing his daughter to be angry with God. When a Republican Playboy model agrees to have sex with the politically liberal Hobie, he vows to never again vote against school prayer.
As with most Woody Allen films, the conversations often turn to sex. Melinda describes cheating on her doctor husband with an attractive photographer and repeatedly talks about how passionate and sexual she is. Several times we see her (and a few other women) wearing revealing clothing. She and Ellis kiss passionately.
Lee quizzes a friend and his pregnant wife extensively about sex with pregnant women, and it is discussed crudely. Lee cheats on his wife, Lauren, with a younger woman, and we see them kissing. Lauren says she’s only ever made love to her husband—another character thinks that’s beautiful—but she eventually cheats on Lee, anyway.
Susan, a director, is trying to get a movie made about castration. Hobie tells a friend he and Susan haven’t had sex in a long time and the last time she didn’t actively participate. He wishes he could be with Melinda without hurting his wife, then happily discovers his wife in bed with another man on top of her (both are covered to the shoulders with sheets). Hobie listens at Melinda’s door for sounds of passion. He talks in his sleep while dreaming of making love with Melinda. And he goes out with a busty former Playboy playmate; they go back to his place to have sex (but she has a change of mood).
Melinda and another woman both try to kill themselves by jumping out windows. A woman conks a man on the head. Melinda describes buying a gun and intentionally killing her husband. When she is heard screaming for help, Hobie jealously says the man she’s with is probably raping her (he’s not).
Crude or Profane Language
Swearing includes about 25 uses of “God” or “g--d--n,” close to 10 abuses of “Jesus” or “Christ,” and a handful of other, milder expletives.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Drinking and smoking is part of the sophisticated New York lifestyle for characters in both stories. Nearly every character (except for a pregnant woman) drinks liquor at dinner parties, in restaurants, in bars and while hanging out at home. Lee and Melinda are both identified as having a problem with alcohol. In addition, Melinda is a chain smoker and regularly pops pills.
Other Negative Elements
Melinda, Hobie and a friend go to the horse track to bet on the races.
Philosophers and comedians alike often wrangle over the thin line between laughter and tears. According to Flying Without Wings author Dr. Arnold Beisser, “Tragedy and comedy are but two aspects of what is real, and whether we see the tragic or the humorous is a matter of perspective.”
In his latest of 40-some films, writer/director Woody Allen sets out to show exactly that. And while the dual-story plot device adds an element of interest, it’s not enough to correct Allen’s recent artistic slide. The tragic side of the story falls especially flat, eventually becoming an (unintended?) comedy itself as Melinda’s sorrows pile up to exaggerated proportions. When she admits towards the end that her mother committed suicide, the audience at my screening laughed out loud.
The comic telling works better thanks to Will Ferrell’s turn in the traditional Woody Allen role. In fact, Ferrell often seems to be doing a Woody Allen impression with his voice mannerisms and muttered one-liners. But he makes it work somehow. Even allowing for such chuckles, though, the experiment fails. If you don’t feel anything for Melinda’s melodramatic life in her "tragedy," then what’s the point in including it (other than to make a sly, not terribly funny double comedy)?
Woody Allen has been lauded throughout his career not just for making sophisticated New York comedies, but also for using smart comedy to wrestle with questions of philosophy, theology and romantic love. In recent years, though, his films (including this one) seem resigned to the worldview that there is no meaning in life, God is little involved in the affairs of men and love is always temporary (leading to inevitable affairs).
Thus, we’re left with the flawed notion that nothing in life really matters except how you look at it. Call it tragedy. Call it comedy. Nothing is truly good or bad—there is only the unpredictable circumstances of existence. Take love when and with whomever you can, no matter your status of matrimony at the moment. It won’t matter in the end.
But if the perspective of Allen's films are wrong (and they are). And if God is involved in our lives (and He is). And the hereafter that waits on the other side is hinged to our relationship with Him (and it is). Then real tragedy and real joy are happening all around us. Even in New York.