In theory, Woody Allen's new movie tells two stories -- one comic, one dramatic -- about more or less the same woman named Melinda. But you'd have a hard time telling them apart if you walked in on one or the other.
Allen launches his didactic concept with a Stravinsky dirge that bleeds into "Take the A Train" (hardly the funniest tune ever written). Then, stealing from his own Broadway Danny Rose, he calls class to order with four people at a Village restaurant, one of them (Wallace Shawn) a comic playwright, the other (Larry Pine) a serious dramatist. To test their notions about whether life's travails are inherently funny or inherently sad, they come up with the barest of scenarios: A woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell) disrupts a small dinner party between friends. Is she a tragic figure? A comic one? What, in each scenario, might happen next?
In the drama, she's the prodigal alcoholic pill-popper among a troika of college gal pals: Laurel (Chloí« Sevigny), a Park Avenue princess and occasional music teacher married to Lee (Jonny Lee Miller), an actor and occasional acting teacher (or vice versa); and Cassie (Brooke Smith), pregnant with her husband's third child. This Melinda married a doctor and left him for a sexy Italian photographer, whom she later shot in a jealous rage.
In the comedy, Melinda lives next door to a hot young director (Amanda Peet), currently filming her $6 million sophomore drama, "The Castration Sonata," and the director's comic-actor husband (Will Ferrell), a whiny nebbish who jokes neurotically about everything. She knocks on the couple's door during the dinner party and eventually gets all tangled up in their lives.
Without its framing device, Melinda and Melinda might have felt slightly less like it's going through the motions. But the comic version of Melinda's life isn't funny, and the dramatic one insists that these banal contemporary characters of Manhattan privilege are living classical dramatic lives. It doesn't help that Allen uses the same muted visual style for each story. The two versions have copious (if pointless) echoes -- unmarried dentists, single-malt scotch, boyfriends of color (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Sunjata) for each Melinda -- and occasionally the dramatic version is funnier than the comic one.
Mitchell looks somewhat like a young Jessica Lange, although Lange has made an art of her monotony, while Mitchell is still working on it. Peet is about as funny here as a burning orphanage. Worst of all is Ferrell, who embarrasses himself (that's saying a lot) in a role that Allen wrote for his own screen persona. Ferrell literally imitates Allen, something Kenneth Branagh did somewhat better in Allen's Celebrity. This all may pass for sophisticated self-reference in some circles, but I think it's the same old narcissism we've come to expect from a faded comic genius. Melinda and Melinda is the least fun I've had lately at the movies, without laughing.