Melinda and Melinda written and directed by Woody Allen, produced by Letty Aronson, with Chloë Sevigny, Radha Mitchell, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Neil Pepe and Will Ferrell. 100 minutes. A Fox Searchlight release. Opens Wednesday (March 23). For venues and times, see Movies, page 90. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Woody Allen has been making the same movie for the last two decades.
In Melinda And Melinda, we get another meandering picture stuck in an 80s-style New York replete with huge lofts occupied by self-obsessed characters with no visible source of income. How can the man who made Annie Hall and Manhattan churn out so many mediocre movies?
Consider that when Arthur Miller died, obituaries allowed that he only wrote two transcendent plays. When Hunter S. Thompson took himself on that great white shark hunt in the sky, they disparaged him for managing only to invent an entire genre before succumbing to an obsession with his own drug-addled gonzo journalist alter ego.
What will they say when Woody Allen goes? That he only made five or six great movies? That our Woody repeated himself over and over again in narcissistic, rambling "comedies" about the relationship between love, sex and death?
Celebrities are about reinvention. Madonna is our greatest celebrity because she regularly checks in with a new identity - last year it was Esther - making her talent the chameleon-like ability to become. Become what? It doesn't really matter.
The artist, on the other hand, hides behind craft, creates entire other fictional personalities as a way to say something otherwise inexpressible about his or her relationship to the world. Because the theme of art is always the protagonist versus society, artists find themselves drawing on the same material over and over again. If they're lucky, every once in a while they get it exactly right. Otherwise, from the outside looking in, it seems like they're just repeating themselves.
As passive consumers of celebrity culture addicted to instant entertainment, we blame the artists - why don't they do something new, turn Muslim or Hindu, start a rock band, check into rehab? The more celebrity entertainment dominates our cultural lives, the more we judge artists as if they were celebrities.
Woody Allen flirted with celebrity by marrying his own adopted daughter and consenting to appear in a documentary about their life together. But in the end, the surprisingly sweet Wild Man Blues made it very clear that Woody is still just Woody. He never changes, and he never will.
Allen, like those recently departed writers, is an artist, not a celebrity. Which is why his art - and the work of many career creators for that matter - is so wonderfully frustrating. It's almost as if he doesn't care if his movies are bad or good. What matters is throwing the paint on the canvas.
Artists can make the same horrible art all their lives. It's not so much their skill and craft that define them, it's the compulsion, the will to create no matter how many times they're told that their aesthetic sucks, their work doesn't sell. "Maybe if you found kabbalah or lived in an empty amusement park and slept in a coffin with little boys we could do something with you, but as it is...."
Artists sometimes turn celebrities, and celebrities are often ex-artists. But artists who remain first and foremost only creators dedicated to their muse are harder and harder for our celeb-obsessed culture to tolerate. For them, we have to be patient. But, hey, Sweet And Lowdown, made long after Allen was said to have lost it, remains one of the most poignant, beautiful films about love, art and obsession I've ever seen.
More often more recently, though, it hasn't worked out for Allen. This doesn't mean we should dismiss his work or his creative legacy. Rather, we should appreciate his determination to obsess himself so far into a metaphorical corner that his only seeming option is to tramp back over the wet paint and risk ruining what he's already done.
Sometimes watching a Woody Allen movie is like waiting for paint to dry. But still the man stands in his corner working feverishly on a shrinking canvas. For better or often worse, he's an artist making his art.
Melinda and Melinda
(Woody Allen) Rating: NNN
Melinda And Melinda's Sliding Doors premise takes us into the messed-up lives of parallel Melindas. Both are beautiful mid-30s blonds on a downward slide replete with booze and pills. Both suddenly insinuate themselves into all too comfortable Manhattan-loft lives. One tale becomes a romantic comedy, while the other turns tragic. But both stories are stilted.
Allen wants to call attention to the contrivances of genre, but at the same time he has to interest us in his roster of clichéd characters: the Park Avenue rich girl, the drunken actor screw-up, the buff house-in-the-Hamptons dentist. This movie gropes for meaningful pronouncements on Allen's ongoing obsessions - love, sex, creativity - but ends with a statement along the lines of "Life is short; enjoy it while you can."
Still, there are several funny one-liners and set gags. Plus, Will Ferrell does an impressively neurotic Woody Allen - either tribute or parody, depending on how you look at it.