|Woody at the BFI: Crimes and Misdemeanors and Melinda and Melinda|
|Written by Ivan Radford|
|Tuesday, 24 January 2012 08:56|
“Let me tell you a story and you tell me, is it material for a comedy or a tragedy?”
The starting point for Melinda and Melinda is the opening for every Woody Allen movie. As a director who finds comedy in the depressing and futile meaningless of life, Allen’s best work features comedy that stems from serious drama. Hannah and Her Sisters. The Purple Rose of Cairo. Husbands and Wives. Manhattan.
That duality is something that Allen openly confronts in binary titles. Crimes and Misdemeanors. Melinda and Melinda. Even Love and Death highlights the contrast between the silliness of farce and the philosophy of Chekhov. It’s when the director steps away from this balance that he starts to falter - see the Bergman-inspired Interiors, or the melodramatic Match Point, which expands one half of Crimes and Misdemeanours into a full feature-length narrative.
And so, as the BFI Woody Allen season continues, here are some thoughts on two of Woody’s most explicitly binary movies.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
“It’s a fundamental difference in the way we view the world. You see it as harsh and pitiless…” Martin Landau’s unfaithful husband debates his moral dilemma with his brother near the beginning of Crimes and Misdemeanors.
It’s one of several conversations discussing this philosophical dichotomy - is life happy or sad? Driven by luck or fate? - in a film that’s defined by it. Two over-lapping halves take each approach, with Landau’s successful ophthalmologist trying to deal with his mistress’s threats to expose their relationship. His infidelity first unfolds in a voiceover as Landau drives home, glowering out the windscreen – an inspired presentation that echoes Hitchcock’s Psycho while reserving any judgement on his actions.
But where an unhappy marriage is a source of pain for the elderly doctor, sexual attraction brings laughs in Allen’s half of the story. A failed documentary maker with the hots for Mia Farrow’s TV producer, he finds himself hired to work with her on a profile of sleazy TV comic Lester (played, inevitably, by Alan Alda). As Lester hits on Halley and smarms his way through some hilarious scenes, he waxes lyrical to the camera about the craft of writing.
“New York is full of pain and misery,” he gushes, adding: “That’s the source of good comedy.”
The film is a careful deconstruction of life’s binary opposition, and one that Allen deftly wraps up in a scene where the two protagonists collide. Haunted by guilt, Landau rests on a piano stool at the end, holding a cigarette. Allen, meanwhile, nails the pain of rejection in one quiet close-up before slumping, saddened, next to Landau, a drink in his hand.
They begin to talk.
Does it count as a happy ending if an unfaithful man gets away with the perfect murder? “He should hand himself in… that’s tragedy,” observes Allen, outlining the plot of Match Point 16 years later.
“You watch too many movies,” retorts Landau before getting up to leave. Both men finish the film in almost the same situation. And in that one simple move, Allen reminds us that those two separate storylines were part of the same story all along.
Melinda and Melinda (2004)
Some people sit around a table discussing life over dinner. Is it tragic or comic? Taking their lead from the tabletop framing device of Broadway Danny Rose, the group instigates a series of contrasting scenes surrounding Radha Mitchell’s titular female.
Drenched in rain, Melinda bursts into a party and ends up disrupting the lives of those around her. In one version of events, she’s suicidal and troubled, stumbling through doomed affairs with Jonny Lee Miller and Chiwetel Ejiofor. In the other, she falls in love with the married Will Ferrell, a failed actor who spends his time spouting neurotic witticisms and planning to play every literary character he comes across “with a limp”.
The cast is impressive – Ferrell’s impersonation of Woody is one of the best (and most restrained) performances of his career – and Mitchell’s versatile timing sees Melinda jump between genres without missing a beat.
Ultimately, it’s more of an exercise in screenwriting than a fully-fledged movie, hanging together loosely with its bare-boned structure. But by raising the subject of the film’s form so directly, Allen makes a light-hearted nod to the duality that underlies his approach. It’s like watching a creative writing workshop to plan out the script for Crimes and Misdemeanors - in a good way. In that sense, this is one of the most sophisticated scripts he’s ever written.
Do we care about one storyline more than the other? No. Here, there’s no overlapping conclusion to provide a dramatic or comedic pay-off. But while the hypothetical conversation lasts, the collaborative act of storytelling is as enchanting as life gets. After all, as the note-perfect final shot reminds us, when you least expect it, it can all end just like that.